The very concept of humility rarely crosses the mind of most people in positions of authority. It is simply not how we are typically conditioned to think. Our culture champions the loud, the bold, the brazen and ruthless. We live in a self-centric society. It’s the ‘me’ generation – self-absorbed, self-centered, entitled and narcissistic, demanding instant gratification and lacking concern for others. It’s every man for himself, every woman for herself.
It’s no surprise that humility is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, and those with a humble unassuming demeanor are perceived as lacking self-esteem or confidence. Quite the contrary, humility is the epitome of self-confidence, a comfortable assurance mindful of pretension and vanity. There’s a wonderful quote by William Temple that aptly sums it up…
“Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.” – William Temple
Contrary to the view of leadership that many managers maintain, superior leaders have a heart for service. But servitude in this context does not mean that leaders are subservient – they don’t wait on people, do their jobs for them, or clean up their messes. Servitude means that leaders work on behalf of the people they lead, serving the best interests of the individuals, team, customers, and organization. They provide guidance and coaching and continuity of vision and direction, delegate effectively, but also roll up their sleeves when appropriate.
Humble leaders constantly strive to better others. They don’t need to seek the spotlight of recognition for themselves, especially to the exclusion of others. Their success is defined not by being indispensable to the organization, but by leading others to self-sufficiency. The most effective leader is one who makes his or her own presence largely unnecessary on a minute by minute, day by day basis. They lead, empower, and cultivate an environment where personal ownership and alignment with organizational mission is the motivator, rather than mere managerial oversight.
Finally, leaders who understand the importance of humility also don’t abuse their authority. In fact, they understand the difference between having authority and being authoritative. Authority is like a sword. Those who are authoritative swing it indiscriminately, either to reinforce their position of power or through simple inexperience. New managers in particular have a dangerous tendency to let their freshly bestowed title go straight to their heads. They wield their title like a sword, without first establishing credibility and trust. These managers have not yet figured out that there is no correlation between title and authority beyond the implied presumption of power. Like trust and respect, the crown of true authority is influence, and influence is earned, not bestowed.
David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, exemplified humility in his leadership and management of his company. A man who avoided publicity, Packard is quoted as saying: “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do.”