Humility in Leadership: Attaining Mightiness

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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.

Mightiness Defined

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.

Brous explained:

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.

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13 Comments

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Profile Photo Kaitlin Moller

There is truth in all of these statements, Jeffrey. The two-paper analogy is extremely insightful and really puts ‘humility’ into perspective. To find that balance between confidence and humility is a strength in and of itself. Those are the people to admire!

Profile Photo Jeffrey

Thanks for your note, Kaitlin. I also think the work of trying to find balance between confidence and humility is never ending. In fact, our humility reminds us that perfection in this and all of our life endeavors is a worthy but ever elusive goal. Jeff

Prosper Waukon

Jeffrey, you have appropriately described one of the cornerstones inherent in traditional American Indian leadership and Indigenous leadership principles in general. Traditional American Indian leadership does not resemble any leadership principles on the market today. All traditional American Indian leadership was officially banned by the U.S. Government in 1934. Another assimilation policy was passed which created tribal governments after the American government system. This Act was known as the “Indian Reorganization Act” or IRA. Respect and Humility remain cornerstone’s in American Indian societies’ today.

Peg Wright

Prosper,
I have always had a high regard for American Indian leadership and mentorship. Ever since I was a very young person. Having respect and humility as cornerstones of a society is a great accomplishment especially when it is sustained over centuries. There is a definition of humility that communicates the greatness of what this word really means: Freedom from arrogance and pride. Respect and freedom from arrogance and pride is wishful thinking these days but my desire would be for Americans of all backgrounds take pause and reflect on the strength of these traits.

Carmen Batista

I feel ill equipped to express my appreciation of this article without an appropriate gif.

You nailed it- our culture promotes people to leadership positions based on their technical skills. But that doesn’t equal leadership. I love the two paper approach and the idea that a leader will hold both beliefs.

Also appreciated your thoughts on us having authority based on technical skills, experience and relationships. I’m getting ready for a job change- and have been mourning the fact that I would be giving up much of the authority of my current position. It feels like starting over because there will be new relationships to build, new expertise needed. But I will definitely carry the two paper approach with me- as I start to work with a new team. Thank you!

Profile Photo Jeffrey

Thanks for your note, Carmen. I am also in the process of a job change. They always feel difficult, like you’re losing something. And you are: your comfort zone, the credibility you’d established at your last job, and your authority. It’s okay to mourn those losses. But when I enter into the difficulty of a change and a move out of my comfort zone, I try to remind myself that the past difficult moves of my life have also invariably been the times of the greatest growth and learning in my life. That growth and learning gives us more skills, more confidence, and more authority. And when all that good stuff comes and we’re feeling all chuffed up, we can remind ourselves to pull out that other piece of paper that say, “We are but dust.” And then we remember to be confident but humble. Best of luck to you with you new position. Don’t forget your two slips of paper! Jeff

Mark T.

I am seldom moved to comment on the items I read, not from apathy, but a sense of private space. That said this is a wonderful and rich post. Lots for those in government and everyday life to embrace, and eloquently stated. Thank you Jeffrey!

TK Buchanan

Good article, very apropos for my work environment (military) where the concept of good leadership can be mistaken for superiority (technical, academic, or positional) and is often synonymous with “who’s right” rather than “what’s right”. There is a Proverb that states, “pride goes before a fall, but before honour is humility”. (Proverbs 16:18). Character precedes competence, IMHO.

TKB

Profile Photo Jeffrey

Dear TKB, Thank you so much for your comment. My entire message could be summed up with your great Proverb/quote. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad my message resonated with you. If only this message and your proverb reached more leaders! Jeff