Humility and leadership

Humility, still today, is a challenging topic when it comes to leadership. A muscular and masculine, fearless, risk-taking leader is still what is widely recognized as an ideal leader by many. The winner shines at life, has the ideal look, touches perfection; the loser is humbly dark, looks hesitant and doubtful, knows perfection doesn’t exist in this world. In a competitive corporate environment, especially when we talk of the Western approach to business, this simplified version of the winner, all muscles and independence, more easily represents the Darwinian positive selection of leaders. Additionally, popular press seems to have a passion for the leader intended as a superhero figure in a solitary role, that gave rise to the success of a company. It’s understandable. In the essentials of survival, since prehistoric man, if I beat fists against my chest and talk aloud, there are more chances that I will convince everybody I’m the big bad guy, the one who makes it. It appears however that some evolutionary time has passed since prehistoric man set the rules of the game and maybe an astute, less muscular guy has already made it while I’m still there beating my chest to show everyone I can make it.

     Humility can be considered a positive self-awareness and desire to pursue personal development in the wider context of life. Humility implies the individual has consciousness of a greater whole than the personal accomplishments and the individual has consciousness of interdependence with others. The consequence of this is a heightened sensibility about oneself and the relations with others as well as an active engagement with the context.

     Reading carefully the above paragraph you actually find the definition of a winner, not a loser. Humility is in fact an element of strength not weakness. 

     The fact about humility is that it opens the doors to seeking and consider the opinions and ideas of others as well as constantly taking into account the context. This has consequences on the behavior of the leader and the relation with the team. Humility ensures the authenticity and the reliability of the leader’s vision, which is anchored to reality and has appropriate expectations; humility ensures that the leader relates with the team open-mindedly, asserting and pursuing the vision but also involving others and valuing their opinions; humility ensures the leader understands each member of the team and dedicates time accordingly with each member’s requirements, in a constructive dialogue aimed at improving the project’s efficiency; humility ensures that the leader is consciously acting as a role model to the team, enabling the team to have an always available mentor and enabling the team to emulate the leader; humility ensures the leader is always responsive to the team’s issues or viewpoints; humility finally ensures that the leader, having a high level of knowledge of the team’s capabilities and of the project in the context, is able to strongly motivate each member of the team, stimulating exactly where is needed. 

     There is a strong nexus between humility and leadership. A humble leader has a very precise cognition of his or her strengths and weaknesses and this cognition, as we saw, opens to a wider understanding that is useful to the leader. However, humility should never downgrade to modesty: the leader is not on an equal footing with the team, leader and team play on separate fields and both need to know this. The improved availability of the leader, the leader’s understanding of each member and the fact that the leader’s behavior is free from excessive self-consideration and excesses in general, must not trick the reading of the situation: humility enhances the leader’s sensibility but this enhancement is strictly functional to the requirements of the common project. The leader is not a friend nor a father, the hierarchical relationship is fully maintained and communicated. 

     The leader’s humility is perceived by the team as an additional quality of their leader that activates better understanding and better relations. The effect on the team is an improved commitment to the project and improved receptiveness to the leader’s requirements, improved trust in the leader’s authenticity. One of the most important effects of the leader’s humility on the team is trust on the leader’s competence and probability of success: a humble leader is nor a dreamer and neither someone who is overestimating a project or the group’s capabilities, a humble leader is someone who has put the project into reality, has previously evaluated the project’s feasibility in the context and understands the team’s capabilities in relation to the project.

     In conclusion, humility is a higher sensibility to the context, to the self and to the team and in this sense, it is actually a tremendous advantage for the leader. Nevertheless, humility should be used very carefully, the medicine should be dosed with care, especially to those that still associate humility with some sort of weakness, totally missing that it actually is a very powerful ingredient. 

     From the leader’s side humility is healthy, it helps recognize leadership as an ongoing development practice. A leader has the humility to realize that learning and development is never done and that not all answers are there with the leader. This approach encourages the sharing of ideas and advices also for the personal benefit of the leader. Furthermore, humility encourages that you search for solutions outside the organization and the project, opening up a whole world of possibilities.

     A leader is entirely and personally involved in the organization he or she is working for. Tackling the most demanding situations requires that you draw on everything you have learned in your life. Sports, personal experiences, interests, emotions and intuition are all on the table, personal involvement is inevitable. And when you draw from such a broad field of experiences there is a very high probability to strongly innovate processes and solutions. This approach is extended by the leader to all the team, who is encouraged to bring fresh solutions drawn from personal experience. This in turn generates a positive environment where people are encouraged to share capabilities that originate in the personal realm, adding passion and enthusiasm to the project. 

     There’s something more to humility and this is what ancient Greeks and Latins taught us: humility should be intended as a virtue. It is a person’s tendency to relate to others with a desire for learning through others, thus involving curiosity and determination to grow. It is the consciousness that all we do is important but still we are a small, very small spot in the planet and although we are an active part of the flow of events, no one of us knows where we come from and where we go. 

     For this reason, the virtue of humility should never be associated to some sort of weakness, but rather to a strong self-awareness, openness and faculty to look beyond usual limits that positively stimulates others and organizational outcomes. Since people with humility are actively engaged in utilizing information, they set higher standards for themselves and the people they interact with and are more determined to reach them. Humility sets the conditions for the evolution of a leader.