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Humility--the Great, Quiet Virtue

Humility "Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way."

Remember that line from the Mac Davis song of the 70's? Given all the forces working on leaders today, it IS hard to be humble!

Think about it. Many of the leadership books lining the shelves in today's bookstores speak of charismatic personalities, undaunted courage, willingness to sacrifice everything, noble passions, and unwavering commitment to a cause. We're urged to stand out, tout our results, and polish our charisma. Nothing wrong with being seen, that's for sure.

There does seem to be a disconnect though between the advice to "stand out" by trying to stand out, and the reality of those who stand out because they lay back. Here's what I mean.

  • In the research for his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins found that the truly great leaders demonstrated personal humility. What does that look like in a person? A compelling modesty, a shunning of public adoration, never boastful, acting with quiet, calm determination, using inspired standards (not inspiring charisma) to motivate.
  • In the workshop I do based on the book, Crucial Conversations, I teach the concept of striking a balance between confidence and humility. Leaders have to be confident enough to contribute their ideas and to see those ideas as being valid and adding value. At the same time, they have to be sincerely humble enough that they wouldn't think of trying to convince and compel others that only their ideas are the "right" ideas. Instead, they influence through their humble and tentative and respectful approach to engaging others in dialogue.
  • Joseph Badaracco sees effective leadership as more a matter of character --who the leaders are -- rather than tactics -- what they do. In his book, Quiet Leadership, he refers to a trait like modesty as an unglamorous, everyday virtue -- not associated in any way with heroic leadership. Modest leaders are effective because they are realists and don't inflate the importance of their efforts or their likelihood of success. As one leader in his book says, "Look, all I'm trying to do is leave a trace on the beach." I like that. Rather than trying to build a castle on the sand, a humble leader is satisfied with leaving a trace on the beach, recognizing the reality of coming tides and winds.

So, really, how humble are you?

We're talking sincere humility, not false modesty. Would former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's comment apply to you? She said, "Don't be so humble, you aren't that great."

Photo on flickr by flygirljc

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