Humble Leadership: Where Should Our Focus Be?

John Muir once said, "In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks." I totally believe this because I love seeing leadership intertwined in nature. There are so many views of leadership to reflect on, and I know I must miss a ton as I wander down paths and creeks depending on what I may be going through or have experienced most recently in my life. One view of leadership that I have seen a lot most recently has been the view of humility. The picture behind the title of this post spoke to me and inspired the title because you can see that there is a tree on top of the hill ("the leader"), but that is not where the focus is. It is on the flowers ("others") that are all around that tree. I believe as leaders that this is exactly where our focus should always be.  It should be on others around us and not ourselves.   

I believe that humility is one of the most important character traits that a leader should have. Most people in our world view the outward actions of humility as making a person look weak, but anyone who has experienced humility knows that it actually has the opposite effect. My son, Luke and I were climbing in southern California and as I looked up at this rock formation, I noticed a small tree growing out of the top of the rock, but next to it was a huge tree that was just as tall as the small one, but was growing from the normal ground height. It made me think about humility and that you don't have to be this big leader on top of your team or organization to be "on top." Actually, it is better for you to be seen as small as you make others look big. And as you do this, you will build a team that is built on a solid rock foundation (relationships and trust) and it will be successful. 

Jim Collins speaks about humility in a Harvard Business Review article called, "Level 5 Leadership - The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve."  He says, "Level 5 leaders blend the paradoxical combination of deep personal humility with intense professional will. This rare combination also defies our assumptions about what makes a great leader."  He goes on to say that Personal Humility:

  • Demonstrates a compelling modesty, shunning public adulation; never boastful.
  • Acts with quiet, calm determination; relies principally on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate.
  • Channels ambition into the company, not the self; sets up successors for even more greatness in the next generation.
  • Looks in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors, or bad luck.

As Jim Collins explains Level 5 leaders, I want to challenge you, as I challenge myself, to strive to reach that goal, but more specifically to be a leader with a "deep personal humility."  As I read the bullet points above, I started imagining what each one would look like in my life and how I could strive to attain this goal.  I thought about even though I will never see every instance that I am being boastful, I know others will see it.  I need to ensure that I am asking for feedback from those I lead, those I work alongside, and those I work for so that I know specifically how I can eliminate my boastful attitude.  

I thought about the second bullet and how I need to ensure that in all I do, I have "inspired" standards that I can use to motivate, while at the same time, inspire others with quiet and calm determination.  Now this sounds like a challenge, especially as a parent.  

I look at the third bullet and know that I need to have my focus on my team or organization and how my goal should be to make them successful through support, coaching, and so forth.  I know when I have had teams in the past, my specific goal was for them to be promoted into my job or somewhere else in the organization.  You may think that this type of focus would put you out of a job or make you look weak, but I have found just the opposite; the more I focus on my people, the more influence I have not only with my team, but surprisingly, throughout the rest of the organization.

As I reflect on the last bullet, I know that not blaming others will be tough at times and I will have to over come internal survival fears. However, thinking about what I will do in these type of situations now will prepare my mind for when they happen... and they will happen.  I need to have a focus on protecting my people, team and organization.  To do this, I need to be willing to "take one" for them.  Are you willing to do that as a leader?    

I am hoping that this time of reflecting on what humility is will raise your awareness of how important humility is for a leader.  I also hope that this has helped you to assess where you are in your journey to reach "deep personal humility" as Level 5 Leader.  I know that this time writing this post has assisted me.

I love Rick Warren's statement: "Humility isn't denying your strengths; it's being honest about your weaknesses." It reminds me that I do have weaknesses, that I don't have all the answers, that I am small, and I do have a ton to learn.  I need to remember this as I lead my people, my family, and my friends so that they look big and I look small.  I hope you will be inspired to get serious about putting the focus on those around you.  Let's take on the challenge to be truly, personally and deeply humble leaders.