As leaders, we must strive to place the interests of those we lead ahead of our own interests.
CS Lewis said, “Humility is not about thinking less of yourself. It is about thinking of yourself less.”
The Failure of Arrogance
I worked for an arrogant leader before. It was not any fun. All of us who worked for this man felt our opinions were not valued. He was the kind of guy who said things like, “When I want your opinion, I’ll tell you what it is.” We believed we were not respected, and we felt more like objects rather than feeling like we were part of the team. The result was that our initiative, imagination, and creativity were stifled. As you can imagine, the leader failed. It takes a team to be successful.
The vignette above is a perfect example of why humility is an important leadership trait. So, the question then is, “How can a leader stay grounded and humble, especially when the leader has had a long record of success and has been continually praised for their leadership ability?” I asked Rich, a trusted colleague, this question recently, and he provided a wise response. He said, “the most important step in being grounded is to embrace the reality that none of what we achieve is done on our own.”
This is good counsel. The reality is, we are never solely responsible for any success. Show me any Super Bowl-winning quarterback who did not have an offensive line on the field blocking for him throughout the game. Sports, business, military operations, and life, in general, are team endeavors. Even an athlete in a solo sport has had a coach, or a supportive family, or a mentor who has helped them to develop. It is important for leaders to stay humble and to stay grounded because, in my experience, organizations function better when there is an unpretentious leader at the helm. A wise person once said, “it is amazing how much could get accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.”
I want to offer three ways leaders could stay grounded and stay humble.
First, as my colleague Rich mentioned in our recent exchange, leaders must publicly recognize other members of the team when the organization achieves success. By acknowledging teammates, leaders send the message that the success was due to the work of the entire team and it was not due to the individual effort of the leader. The sooner the leader rewards and recognizes people on the team once an achievement is reached, the more impactful it is.
Surround Yourself With Smart People
Second, leaders must recognize that they are not the smartest person in the room regarding every subject. Leaders need to understand that there are others on the team who probably know more than they do about certain subjects. Leaders should take deliberate steps to surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are. There is a saying that I have embraced. It reads, “if you are the smartest person in the room, then find another room.” Leaders who lack the confidence to bring smarter people on to their team are the ones who usually suffer from a false sense of pride and do not generally last long in their leadership position.
Encourage Dissenting Views
Third, leaders must establish an environment where teammates feel safe disagreeing with the leader. The actions, attitude, body language, and tone of voice of the leader should facilitate open dialogue. Leaders must proactively ask others why they think an idea may not work and ask for alternative views. Unless there is an extreme sense of urgency and time is of the essence, leaders should guard against making decisions unilaterally before getting other opinions. One of the best ways a leader could show respect to others is by asking for their opinion and then seriously considering it.
Stay Humble, Stay Successful
To stay level-headed and keep one’s feet placed firmly on the ground, leaders must acknowledge others for their contributions to the team’s success, surround themselves with smart people, and encourage team members to offer their views.
Acting on the recommendations listed above will go a long way in developing the trait of humility. The good news is that employing these recommendations will also lead to organizational success. Humble leaders focus ambition on achieving organizational success, rather than focusing their ambition to achieve their own personal success.