Humility: The Secret Sauce of Effective Leadership

A couple of minutes’ reflection on the power of humility.

The idea of humility comes up a lot in leadership theory and education.  Indeed you can find the word  in the index of many of the bazillion or so books on leadership on sale in every airport, supermarket, bookstore and web site in the US.  But a lot of times it feels like a box being checked.  ‘Let’ s see, we covered communication, group dynamics, humility….’

It seems that humility  — “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less” as the writer C.S. Lewis put it — may be one of the most important competencies a leader might achieve.

Yet in our Western philosophical traditions we don’t really value humility.  Maybe we just don’t understand it.  Sometimes we think of the term as synonymous with “humiliation.”  Other times it suggests something like a deficiency.

Our deeply imbedded ideas about individuality make it easy for us to build up a prideful sense of self.  “I’ll go it alone, that’s how it must be,” the song tells us.  This is especially true for men.  Our most important mythological role models and mental models tell us that the real man has the courage and resourcefulness to overcome.  We easily transform this idea into a huge ego.  If I get the grief I also get the gold.

It’s also tough to judge whether one is living humbly.  One can’t exactly have the goal of becoming “the humblest person in the world.”  This burden falls especially fully on those who would be leaders.  But the best seek humility every day.  The leadership expert Jim Collins identifies five levels of leadership, the zenith of which is Level 5.  In Good to Great he writes,

“Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.”

It means getting your self out of the way. One must practice consciously every day.  In Team of Rivals Doris Kearns Goodwin portrays President Lincoln as a great example of this notion.  He never let his pride distract him from the prize.  Pope Francis offers us a current example of the power of humility. He has told the Church’s 19 new cardinals to embrace service and humility as they take on their new roles. In an unprecedented letter to the men he wrote that being made a cardinal was not a promotion.

“The Cardinalate does not mean a promotion, nor an honour, nor a decoration. It is simply a service that widens the eye and enlarges the heart.”

This could only be achieved by “taking the form of a servant,” the Pope added, and following the way of humility and lowliness.

Jim Collins seconds the motion.  “Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious–but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves,” writes Collins.

Take the mission seriously, take your contribution to it seriously, but never believe your own press releases or take yourself too seriously.  I like the humor in this advice from the 1st century (CE) Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.'”


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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