The other day, a colleague asked me what I considered the most important quality of an effective leader. My immediate response was, “humility.” My colleague was incredulous. “Humility?! Really?! That’s the last word I would use to describe the leaders I know.”
I asked, “Were these real leaders, or simply leaders by virtue of their professional title?”
My colleague paused to think for a moment. Then she asked, “Isn’t it more important for a leader to be confident and self-assured, and to have strength of character?”
It was my turn to respond with a question, “Why are these qualities at odds with humility?”
Humility Versus Strength – A False Dichotomy
We gain increasing authority on the job because of our technical skills, work experience and professional connections. But a common misconception is that technical skills qualify us to lead others. In reality, even the most highly developed technical skills don’t qualify us to lead.
Humility keeps us from assuming there’s a causal relationship between our technical skills and our leadership abilities. In fact, humility – among other skills involved in emotional intelligence – enables a highly qualified and experienced technician to make the leap to lead others.
The conversation about humility and leadership was still on my mind when I watched a TED talk by Rabbi Sharon Brous, who describes how to create a hopeful counter narrative to the numbing realities of violence, extremism and pessimism that surround us. One of the strategies she offered for creating this counter narrative was to develop a sense of mightiness. I found Brous’ definition of mightiness both surprising and inspiring. It also references humility and aligns with my thoughts on the importance of humility for leaders.
There’s a rabbinic tradition that says we are to hold a slip of paper in each pocket. In one pocket, the slip of paper says, “I am but dust and ashes.” In other words, it’s not all about me; I can’t control everything, and I cannot do this on my own.
In the other pocket, the slip of paper says, “For my sake the world was created.” In other words, it’s true I can’t do everything, but I sure can do something. I can forgive. I can love. I can show up. I can protest. I can be a part of this conversation.
We prostrate ourselves to remind ourselves that we are but dust, and then we raise our arms in the air to say we are mighty.
Humility as Strength
We can become more effective leaders if we keep these ideas in our minds like pieces of paper in our pockets. Strong technical skills, experience and connections give us confidence. And we have one piece of paper giving us permission to raise our hands in the air, feel mighty and act with authority. Meanwhile, the other slip of paper reminds us that we are no greater, no more important and no more deserving of respect than the lowest-ranking employee in the organization.
Leaders who only pay attention to the slip of paper that says “For my sake the world was created” will fail to inspire those they hope to lead. They will assume they have nothing to gain or learn from the team. They will be resistant to input and disconnected and inaccessible to new ideas and feedback. And in the end, they will likely inspire cynics, not followers.
On the other hand, developing a sense of humility prevents us from getting defensive about our ideas, decisions and direction for the organization. It makes us open to new ideas and lively debate. Honoring and recognizing the good ideas and work products of others doesn’t diminish us. It builds us up in the eyes of our colleagues, just as it builds up the entire organization. Humility is also a key to compassion, another critical quality of an effective leader.
Whether we are a Rabbi, a leader or simply a colleague, friend or family member, carrying Brous’ two slips of paper can help us all be mighty. They give us permission to be confident and self-assured. But they also remind us to be humble – just dust and ashes. These are the essential qualities of a compassionate and effective leader.
This blog does not represent official policies of the Corporation for National and Community Service or those of the U.S. Government.
Jeffrey Page is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.