Listening to the media these days one would think that our leaders have lost all sense of humility, if indeed they ever had it.
Donald Trump brags that he used a $1 million inheritance to create $10 billion net worth. CEOs like Valeant’s Mike Pearson hype their quarterly results by focusing only on the positive aspects, only to see their company’s stock prices collapse at a later date. Activist investors like Carl Icahn and Nelson Peltz act like they understand complex businesses better than experienced leaders with decades of experiences. Then they use media appearances and public pronouncements to bully CEOs and their boards into “quick fix” solutions.
Whatever happened to humility as a virtue for leaders?
In his 2005 Harvard Business Review article, author Jim Collins postulated a higher level of leader characterized by humility and fierce resolve. This indeed corresponds with my experience: the finest leaders are keenly aware of their limitations and the importance of teams around them in creating their success.
They know they stand on the shoulders of giants who built their institutions. Their job is to build teams of leaders capable of taking their organization to higher levels in order to cope with today’s fierce demands. They exhibit humility in their actions and interactions, yet are passionately committed to the success of their enterprises.
The word humility is often misunderstood. Dictionaries define it as “a modest opinion of one’s own importance,” “the quality of not thinking you are better than other people,” and “self-restraint from excessive vanity.” It is certainly not false modesty or disavowing one’s accomplishments.
Humility derives from an inner sense of self-worth. Humble leaders are grounded by their beliefs, their values, and the principles by which they lead. Ultimately, they know to lead is to serve their customers, employees, investors, communities, and ultimately, society through their work.
Humility is an essential quality for authentic leaders. People trust them because they know they are genuine, honest, and sincere. Lacking those qualities, people live in fear and doubt – not exactly the ingredients to bring out the best in people. In difficult times, people rely on humble leaders even more to get them through crises.
Every day leaders are closely scrutinized for their words and their actions, as they become role models for people inside and outside their organizations. In contrast, leaders who brag and tout their achievements often do so from a deep sense of insecurity. Outwardly, they act like bullies and try to intimidate people, but inside they feel like imposters who may be unmasked at any time.
This is not to suggest that humble leaders are soft, weak, or unwilling to take tough actions such as terminating poor performers or laying people off. They do so with clarity about the impact of their actions, not for themselves but for the greater good of their organizations.
For much of my life, no one would have considered me humble. To the contrary, I felt the need to push myself forward through my accomplishments, to be recognized for my achievements, and to express confidence that I could solve any problem presented to me. In part, these characteristics stemmed from fear of being rejected by others or bullied by powerful personalities. In my early years it was hard to admit my mistakes without rationalizing them or to say simply, “I don’t know.”
As my inner confidence grew, I no longer needed to have all the answers or try to impress others with what I had done. I freely admitted my mistakes, and learned that doing so enabled others to acknowledge their errors. I recognized vulnerability is power, not trying to appear invulnerable. As I did so, people gained greater confidence in my leadership and expressed increased desire to join me in common pursuits.
I still don’t like bullies, and want to challenge them, rather than let them get away with intimidating others. When I witness them trying to overpower others, I defend people against them. At least now I confront them with facts and rational arguments, not emotional responses.
Ultimately, we connect with others not through our words, our intellect, or having the right answer, but through our hearts – our humility in the challenges we face, missteps we have made, our weaknesses, and our acceptance of not knowing. As the Bible says, “With pride comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2). This is the wisdom of experience tempered by judgment.
Bill George is Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School, former Chairman & CEO of Medtronic, and author of Discover Your True North.
This article was originally posted to huffingtonpost.com on 3/9/2016.