Is Humble Leadership about How You Act or Who You Are?
January 9, 2017
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Leaders can be taught to act humbly. But humility is far more powerful when it’s connected to character.
Since the financial crisis and great recession deflated a lot of big egos, humility has come to the fore as an essential trait of successful leaders. The arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway swaggerer has given way to the empathetic, humble servant. A number of academic studies confirm that it’s a good thing. Researchers at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, for example, found that the most effective leaders tend to be humble people.
That’s certainly been my experience over more than 25 years at the Washington Speakers Bureau. We represented some of the most well-known leaders in the world—among them, three of the past four presidents of the United States, four prime ministers of Great Britain, five U.S. secretaries of state, and countless government and military leaders, journalists, authors, and sports legends. With few exceptions, I’ve found that the common thread in their character is humility.
That isn’t idle flattery. For the past ten years, I’ve interviewed more than 100 of those clients about what made them who they are. In case after case, the stories they told me about what shaped them involved humble circumstances and a deep sense of gratitude to the people who made a difference in their lives.
Take James Carville, whose fierce intelligence and relentless drive helped put an obscure Arkansas governor in the White House. James grew up in a small Louisiana town that was home to the world’s largest research and treatment facility devoted to leprosy. The decisive influences in his life: a mother who sold encyclopedias, a father whose dedication to serving his neighbors led him to keep his country store in business long after the big grocery chains made it unprofitable, and a large community of African-Americans subject to injustice that was obvious to the teenage James.
Or consider Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve. He was an aspiring musician—a Juilliard graduate, a multi-instrumentalist, and a saxophonist traveling with a swing band. But one of his bandmates was Stan Getz, who would go on to become one of the most accomplished jazz musicians of his generation. His playing put Alan’s in the shade. “All I had to do was listen to Stan,” he told me, “to know I would never be that good.” He gave up music, but the recollection of that disappointment helped keep him balanced thereafter.
Or take Condoleezza Rice. From her you’ll hear no self-congratulatory talk of pulling herself up by her own bootstraps—the kind of talk that sometimes masquerades as humility. Instead, she says, “Whenever I need strength and inspiration, all I have to do is be reminded that I was lifted on some very strong shoulders.”
In today’s discussion of humble leadership, that’s the missing ingredient—genuine humility.
A spate of recent articles from places like Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Forbes offer some sound, common-sense advice about how to practice humility: admit mistakes, listen to other points of view, confess that you don’t have all the answers, seek feedback, and focus on the needs of others. The research shows that such behavior inspires greater employee loyalty and boosts job performance.
But that’s about how you act, not who you are—behavior, not character. Imagine how much more powerful that behavior can be when it flows from the deepest wellsprings of character, as it does with so many of the leaders I interviewed and have come to know over the years. They don’t need to think about humility consciously; it’s second nature to them. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, long ago identified what he called “Level 5 leaders”—the highest level in his hierarchy—as those who combine personal humility with fierce professional will.
What about the rest of us? Can you acquire a humble character by changing your behavior—fake it till you make it, as they say in 12-step programs. That’s what much of the leadership literature suggests. But maybe you don’t need to fake it. Perhaps your humility is already there but lying dormant, waiting be roused. An exceptional leadership coach, for example, can help you tap into the really meaningful people, places, and moments in your life buried under the years of forgetfulness.
Or you can try beginning with introspection. Looking inward isn’t easy in the age of social media and self-promotion, when we’re urged to develop our personal “brand” instead of our character. Our lives are too busy, our attention spans too fractured by the pings of mobile devices and the addictive glow of the screen. But it’s worth a try. And you have nothing to lose but a false sense of pride.
Think of it this way: Winston Churchill once described a political rival as “a modest man who has much to be modest about.” Then ask yourself what you have to be modest about.
– Bernie Swain is co-founder and Chairman of Washington Speakers Bureau, author of What Made Me Who I Am (CLICK HERE to get your copy) and today’s foremost authority on the lecture industry. Over the past 35 years, he has represented former US Presidents, American and world leaders, journalists, authors, business visionaries, and sports legends. Follow him on twitter @Swain_Bernie or via his website www.bernieswain.com.
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