Humility and Leadership


Last week my colleague and collaborator, Anne Ackerson, wrote a piece on her blog, Leading By Design, about the three most important qualifications for a nonprofit executive. The piece grew out of an assignment Anne gave her American Association for State & Local History online students. This is a class on leadership and in a nutshell students were asked to list their three most important qualifications for leadership. So guess what noun made the list? Yep, humility.

I know little about Anne’s students, but their choice of humility has stayed with me. It’s interesting that in the tangle of nouns and adjectives currently associated with leadership–words like courage, humor, integrity and vision–humility is rarely in the top five. And yet, it’s so obviously a good thing.

Its roots are in the word humble from the Latin humilis, which in turn comes from humus or ground. It’s sort of the opposite of the boss you always hated who was full of bluster and brashness, signifying nothing. And even though it’s nowhere in the definition, humility speaks to me of quiet, of a less-is-more style of leadership where a leader believes the organization and its needs trump her particular glory.

But don’t think humble leaders are just polite people. They may have manners, and they may be warm and friendly, but that’s not what defines their humility. And can it be learned? Well, we hope so. Here are Leadership Matters’ humility prompts: First, keep learning: You may be smart, but don’t be a know it all. Realizing you’re not the smartest person in the room keeps you humble. Don’t drink the success Kool aid: Just because you got the big job, doesn’t mean you’re any smarter, just that you were a good communicator and you were lucky. Remember there’s always a bigger fish: Know and understand your competition, personally and organizationally. That breeds humility as well. Embrace the two-percent: What does that mean? It means that 98-percent of our ideas are mediocre, but the remaining two percent might be genius. Take that two-percent and prototype like a mad woman especially if it’s not your idea. Show your staff how much their imagination matters. Remember to be first as in learn first, praise first, fail first, prototype first–you get the idea.

So, think about it. Is humility in your toolbox? Does it come to work and return home with you? Make sure it’s there. It will keep you humble and make you a better leader.

Because we’re always asking you to read across the “curriculum;” to get out of your bubble and see the connections and synchronicity in things, here are some things to listen to. In the first one–an interview with the Right Reverend Gary Hall on the Pew’s new research on Christianity in America, pay particular attention to his answer to the second question. Remind you of another field you know? And with the second one, trust is the foundation of all human relationships. You cannot lead without trust. Listen and learn.

Share your thoughts.

Joan Baldwin


2 Comments on “Humility and Leadership”

  1. Arden Fiona says:

    WoW! This is one of the most refreshing, sensible and just down right relatable articles that I have read in some time:) I couldn’t agree more and thank so very much for such a wise perspective. The last line is, or ‘the second one’ is what really gave me the goosebumps!
    “ᴛʀᴜsᴛ ɪs ᴛʜᴇ ғᴏᴜɴᴅᴀᴛɪᴏɴ ᴏғ ɑӀӀ ʜᴜᴍᴀɴ ʀᴇʟᴀᴛɪᴏɴsʜɪᴘs.ʏᴏᴜ ᴄᴀɴɴᴏᴛ ʟᴇᴀᴅ ᴡɪᴛʜᴏᴜᴛ ᴛʀᴜsᴛ. ʟɪsᴛᴇɴ ᴀɴᴅ ʟᴇᴀʀɴ. ᴀɴᴅ sʜᴀʀᴇ ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴛʜᴏᴜɢʜᴛs.”
    ɪᴛs ᴀʟʟ ᴀʙᴏᴜᴛ ᴍᴀsᴛᴇʀɪɴɢ ᴛʜᴇsᴇ ғᴏᴜɴᴅᴀᴛɪᴏɴs & ʙᴀsɪᴄ ᴘʀɪɴᴄɪᴘʟᴇs, ᴡʜɪᴄʜ ɪs ᴀ ʟɪғᴇ ʟᴏɴɢ ᴘʀᴏᴄᴇss ᴛʜᴀᴛ ᴏɴᴇ ɴᴇᴇᴅs ᴛᴏ ʙᴇ ᴀᴄᴛɪᴠᴇ ᴀɴᴅ ᴀᴡᴀʀᴇ ɪɴ ᴡʜɪʟᴇ ᴄʜᴀʟʟᴇɴɢɪɴɢ ᴏᴜʀsᴇʟᴠᴇs ᴡɪᴛʜ ᴇᴀᴄʜ ɴᴇᴡ ᴅᴀʏ. ᴀɴᴅ ғᴏʀ ᴍʏsᴇʟғ, ɪ ᴘᴇʀsᴏɴᴀʟʟʏ ʟᴏᴠᴇ “ɪ ᴡɪʟʟ ᴛʀʏ ᴀɢᴀɪɴ ᴛᴏᴍᴏʀʀᴏᴡ”! ᴛʜᴀɴᴋs ᴀɢᴀɪɴ!

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