Humility Can Seem Soft When Problems Are Hard
Humility bestows confidence and loyalty
Don’t miss the second part of this topic and the related podcast episode:
“Humility is attentive patience.” — Simone Weil (1940)
Humility is often considered a “soft” trait. Like kindness, vulnerability, empathy, and other non-quant skills.
But to categorize soft skills as not hard is missing the bigger picture. Such virtues are much more difficult to master, as they require not only behavioral change, but a deep understanding of oneself and, more importantly, of others.
The flip side of humility is hubris or pride. In a previous issue of Timeless & Timely (“Humility or Futility”), we acknowledged the slight difference in the definition of the terms: hubris meaning arrogance that gives offense to the gods, as the ancient Greeks believed, and pride being offensive to others.
And humility is a trait that is observed by others. It’s certainly not something about which a leader can brag. Leaders demonstrate humility in what they say and do, and in what they choose not to say and do.
It’s what is visible about you.
Whether it’s as CEO, head of a department, or even a first-time manager, a leader is only as good as their team. We expect that they bring a certain level of technical knowledge to the job; perhaps they’re a respected engineer, marketer, or financial wizard. But running an effective organization means tapping into the powers of others.
Every human being on this earth has a limited set of knowledge. Our brains have a limited capacity to know only so much. Humility is when we realize that.
George Washington, Most Humble and Obedient Servant
By the time the drafters of the Constitution chose George Washington as the first president, he was an accomplished man. A military leader who had a career spanning three decades, including as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.
And yet, he was still haunted by insecurity. Really, who can blame him? The leadership roles he took on were unprecedented; he was setting out on a path never trodden before. His words and deeds (including stepping down after two terms as president), show him as a leader, who despite his considerable success, was still humble.
Nancy Lemann writes:
“One endearing thing about the father of our country was his propensity for self-effacement. Every time they drew him to a post, he would agonize and ultimately accept but essentially stand up and say, 'I just want it on the record that I do not consider myself equal to this task.’
“That was his basic position on everything. Showing that even the great have self-doubt. Maybe only the great. His professions of unworthiness continued to the end. In his farewell address to the nation after serving two terms as president he said he hoped that his many forms of incompetence would be consigned to oblivion.
“It sometimes seems a cliché to commend George Washington, but 'intellectual humility’ is associated with the capacity to maintain convictions, according to a recent scientific study, and I think it is one quality that must characterize an incorruptible man. If only because such a man is capable of admitting his mistakes. He knows he is fallible, and his self-doubt expands the potential of his mind, allowing him to understand that there are better ways than his, and that they can and must be searched for.” 1
That sounds similar to what we know about emotional intelligence (more on that shortly), in which a leader is self-aware.
But more than being acutely aware of their own potential, shortcomings, and emotions, humble leaders understand that there are others who know more than us, and—more importantly—know differently than us.
“I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, 1893
Admitting shortcomings or acknowledging we don’t know everything doesn't equate to being timid or modest; humble leaders can still display confidence. The difference is that when we recognize our colleagues and their contributions, we show that we see them, appreciate their talent, and value working together. And that’s at the heart of leader humility.
It gives root to our ability to work together, serving as the foundation of relationships. If I don't see you and you don't see me for who we are, then there's no relationship there.
Simply put, our dignity demands it.
“Leader humility is a tendency to feel and display a deep regard for others’ dignity.” — Marilyn Gist, 2020
D-I-G-N-I-T-Y, it’s essential and this is why
Dignity is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. When you disregard or even violate the dignity of others, you make them feel like nonentities.
What’s a violation of dignity? Name-calling, bullying, cutting people off, stereotyping, taking credit — anything that shows you don't appreciate someone’s unique contribution.
Remember that tale about Alan Mulally always demurring when praised, responding instead with “It's an honor to serve”? It’s a lesson in sharing credit.
A leader who is comfortable with their position doesn't need to take credit. When you’re saddled with a boss who needs to soothe his ego constantly, it’s exhausting. And it results in a lot of taking credit and doling out blame.
“The Greeks… saw that the unpardonable sin is insolence or presumption, an overweening pride of passion or reason, a failure to be mindful of the Nemesis that lies in wait for disproportionate self-assertion. Humanism, no less than religion, enjoins the virtue of humility.” — T.S. Elliot, 1929
The Harm of Hubris
Think back to The Odyssey, in which Odysseus and his men find themselves trapped in a cave with Polyphemus, the deranged, man-eating, sheep herding, one-eyed beast. Odysseus hatches an ingenious escape plan: they wait for the cyclops to fall asleep and then stab him in the eye with a sharpened log. Enraged and blinded, Polyphemus staggers to remove the stone he had rolled in front of the entrance of the cave, which frees Odysseus and his men.
It’s brilliant and, best of all, Odysseus, never having given the cyclops his real name, is off scot-free. But then, just out of reach of the bleeding, angry, shouting cyclops, he turns back and taunts:
“Cyclops! If any mortal asks you how
Your eye was mutilated and made blind,
Say that Odysseus, the city-saker,
Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca,
Destroyed your sight.”
Odysseus just couldn’t help himself. He wanted the credit. And he stupidly forgot that Polyphemus’ father was Poseidon. You don’t maim the son of the lord of the sea and take an ocean voyage without expecting some divine retribution.
This moment of hubris cost Odysseus something like ten years of his life, as Poseidon threw up countless obstacles, one after the other, between Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, back home in Ithaca. It’s a lesson that many people have heeded (and plenty of others have painfully forgotten) ever since.
History and literature are rife with examples of hubris, or excessive pride and arrogance.
Ajax, title character of Sophocles’ play of the same name, thinks he does not need Zeus’ help due to hubris.
Oedipus thinks he can outrun his destiny.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein thinks he can control life.
It seems that more often than not, the ego-driven, ambitious, obsessive visionaries — call them what you will — are celebrated and rewarded. And to a certain degree that’s true. For without drive, ambition, and self-confidence, it’s hard to stand out.
But there's a sense of entitlement and control that individuals like this bring to the table. And it’s damaging to everyone around them, including the entity they're trying to build.
Entitlement says, “I deserve this by virtue of who I am, not what I did.” The dignity-robbing “And you don’t” follows logically.
Control says “My way or the highway,” and drives away the very people who might be in the best position to help.
We can let go of our ego when we recognize that the key to success is in working together.
Alan Mulally brought this spirit of working together to Boeing and Ford. Really, it’s a business philosophy and management system:
You can see the humility this takes and the dignity it bestows on the team. It grants responsibilities and demonstrates a leadership team that cares about them.
Emotional intelligence, empathy, dignity, humility: these are leadership virtues that show your care and concern for others. Simply put, it's selflessness.
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” — C.S. Lewis, 1952
What could be more powerful and deserving of loyalty than serving others?
A soft skill, indeed. But needed more in difficult times than ever.
Friday’s Premium Subscriber edition is about how we can give others an opportunity to fail with dignity. Don’t miss it:
We also talked about humility on Timeless Leadership. Joining me for this episode was author Marilyn Gist, Ph.D., whose book The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility includes a foreword and a chapter by my old boss, Alan Mulally.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.