Leadership: The humble leader

My thanks this month to Vistage/TEC member Tom Mallory, president of Acadia Associates, for asking the key question: Can humility help us in business?

I would like to add: especially in difficult business times.

Tom points out, quoting a friend, that this down market is truly humbling. Because the business has weakened, his friend has lost confidence. But Tom rightfully points out that there is, in fact, a distinction, between losing confidence and being humbled.

“Humility is the opposite of weakness and it requires confidence,” he says.

The point is that strength in leadership evolves from humility. Over the past few months, several celeb CEOs have left their kingdoms with no remorse for their failure to lead. Their lack of humility, all so obvious, continues to be disgusting to all of us.

So, if we agree that humility should be a key part of who we are, what can we do to make it happen? Alfred Ells, a senior therapist with New Life Clinic and founder of House of Hope Counseling, offers these pointers:

Serve others

Regardless of our company position, if we believe it’s our job to serve others such as employees, stakeholders and our communities and we operate with this premise every day, we’re less inclined

to focus on ourselves. Serving others is not a blank check to acquiesce tough leadership responsibilities. If we do, humility becomes a cop-out for poor leadership capabilities.

Listen to feedback and criticism.

A key indicator of genuine humility is not becoming defensive when we hear criticism. In tough times, it’s normal to expect name-calling and criticism such as “Why didn’t you do this?” or “Why don’t you do that?” I like Ells’ interpretation of criticism by asking, “What is being shown to me that I can’t see?”

Be patient with injustice against you.

When something happens in business that makes you want to strike back and correct it, avoid the tendency to, as one associate said, “rattlesnake it.” I think this is a great lesson in humility, and it rubs off on those around you. It happened to me recently, and I’m happy I saw the wisdom of the recommendation.

Acknowledge mistakes

Maybe one of the hardest lessons of humility is to admit that we were wrong and to share our admission with those we trust. It’s not a disclosure of weakness but, in reality, an admission of personal character.

Submit to authority

Our culture values confrontation and individualism, especially in the face of authority exercising “power” prerogatives against us. A very tough aspect of humility is to submit, when it’s clear that the authority position – such as tax audits, worker’s compensation claims and claims of discrimination – is justified.

Find the lowly place

Being placed at the head of the table just because of “who you are” may be totally inappropriate for the occasion. Giving up your anointed titular “position” is a very strong statement of humility. So is giving up a reserved parking space in the company parking lot.

Associate with those less fortunate

This is a tough one. I practice it on a regular basis, and I believe I’m a better person for it. Finding ways to “hang out” with people out of your class is, perhaps, the greatest humility lesson. It reminds you that we’re all truly one on this planet, and because our own situation may be better financially, socially and educationally, we still share the same hopes, dreams and desires.


We all make mistakes, some much bigger than others. Forgiving extreme acts of inhumanity is a separate issue, but forgiving small acts is an act of humility. Ask the simple question, “Would I want to be forgiven for this myself?” It’s the fastest way to check your humility barometer. In hard times, employees will make mistakes that are more visible than they would be in “normal” times. Forgiving them is a great act of humility.

Speak well of others

Even when it seems impossible, finding something positive to say to an employee – about anything – is a big plus when times are bad. It’s couched on a personal feeling of humility and humanity toward others. Its impact is priceless.

Are you humble? Do you want to be? I hope so. Until next month, let’s focus on the people stuff that really makes the difference.

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