[Editor’s note: This is part 8 of a 10-part series examining the building blocks of effective L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P.]
"Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself.... [It is] freedom from thinking of yourself at all." ---William Temple
At this point in our Leadership series, I hope you've begun to think of these essential building blocks as an interlocking structure that strengthens your ability to lead. As we saw last week, for example, reliability is one of the linchpins in the exercise and the embodiment of many of these qualities.
There's another even rarer seed that is not so easy to come by. You may not see it very often in the business leaders with whom you're familiar. But as bread won't rise without yeast, a business without a humble leader can have difficulties. So in our acronym for the building blocks of leadership, this week we explore H = humility.
In truth, I suspect that one of the reasons I chose humility is because it is such a rare but admirable quality. In my lifetime, no one more earnestly embodied this enviable trait than my father. As like the quote from William Temple, he judged no one (maybe his sons when they were acting up in church), and it never occurred to him that he was better than anyone else. He only saw that he had different gifts to share but would respond not a whit differently if you stepped out of a limousine or crawled from under a cardboard shelter. (In my case, I wish the apple had fallen a little closer to the tree.)
Having a modest opinion of your importance or standing may sound like weakness to some people. Yet, humility is a dominant thread of great leaders because it is a powerful magnet to get high performers to follow you over the hill.
In a welcome stroke of serendipity, I was preparing for some upcoming meetings when I was reminded of Jim Collins' description of a "Level 5 Leader" as a "triumph of humility and fierce resolve." It's a characteristic of every single leader whose company moved from "good to great," as described in Mr. Collins' book by the same name. (Mr. Collins also emphasizes the power of D = Discipline, another of our essential leadership building blocks.)
Humility makes it safe for you to admit your mistakes. People don’t expect you to be perfect. Quite the contrary, your willingness to admit your mistakes reflects your humanness, your vulnerability and your similarity to everyone else who makes mistakes every day. Our peers and comrades will usually give us an extra coil of rope when we humbly acknowledge our own errors, work to fix them and do it in a nonjudgmental manner that looks in the mirror for responsibility not out the window. Even the greatest leaders are imperfect, and usually the people working for them recognize that. None of us fails to fail.
Humility also means that we're willing to acknowledge that we don't know everything. We welcome talents from all corners of the realm and welcome those whose talents exceed our own. We don't sit in judgment of other people. We recognize that everyone has the potential to be a valuable contributor, and while they may not meet the standard required for a specific role, it doesn't mean there is no suitable role. We don't "judge a book by its cover" because we're willing to take the time to understand what’s between the covers and won't be consumed by the colors or powerful imagery that appear on the cover.