The importance of humility as a quality of good leaders is an interesting concept.
Although some lip service is paid to it, it has received little attention in the management literature and far more has been written about notions of charismatic leadership and celebrity leaders or indeed psychopathic leaders.
Indeed one might wonder whether, thanks to the unerring eye of Charles Dickens, our society has been so subtly acculturated by memories of the cloying evil and the fake humility of Uriah Heep, that we have turned away from humility. And fake humility will not do, for “nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast”, according to Jane Austen.
But let us think rather of genuine, authentic humility. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of humility describes it as “‘the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance”. It is not, however, about underestimating oneself – but about being capable of accurately estimate one’s own talents and attributes. Ultimately, in the words of a true genius Albert Einstein, “a true genius admits that he/she knows nothing” because there is always so much more to be learned.
Can such a modest self-estimation sit well alongside the qualities required for leadership? Authentic humility does not mean that you don’t recognise your own strengths and capacities, but simply that you have the measure of them, you know the limits of your own powers and when to turn to others for help, advice, ideas, improvements, criticisms and frankly unpalatable truths.
Winston Churchill often rated one of our greatest leaders in polls of leadership, admitted ruefully “I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet”.
It has been my experience that leaders sometimes find it difficult to admit they’ve been wrong and most catastrophic business disasters have resulted from leadership inability to admit mistakes, acknowledge them openly, apologise if necessary and move on. This stems from lack of will to accept that the strategic direction and vision might need revisiting and lack of humility to recognise that the world might change around you, that society might have moved on, that you need to learn from others who know more than you.
As Alexander Pope puts it: “A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”
The converse of humility is hubris, that is excessive pride or self-confidence and the key here is that this confidence is unwarranted or excessive. The humble leader knows their own measure – they don’t underplay it or overplay it. They make it clear that it is acceptable to fail and to stand up and admit mistakes, because they do so themselves.
Researchers Farson and Keyes talk about the failure-tolerant leader, by which they don’t mean leaders who accept failure fatalistically but the importance of business leaders understanding that it is only in a culture where we are unafraid of failing that innovation and change can take place: they stress that the typical business leader still “hates to fail. We assume, rationally or not, that we’ll suffer embarrassment and a loss of esteem and stature. And nowhere is the fear of failure more intense and debilitating than in the competitive world of business, where a mistake can mean losing a bonus, a promotion, or even a job”.
Hubris denotes a blindness to the possibility of failure and masks deep seated insecurities amongst leaders about being vilified as a failure.
In a recent article, Myers reflects on the reasons why humility is so important in leadership and business and incidentally in life generally. Myers notes the dangers surrounding the absence of humility of failing to recognise one’s limitations and weaknesses, for “no one likes dealing with egomaniacs. There are few things as off-putting as people who view themselves as being better than others or above the rules”.
Such leaders do not inspire loyalty and motivate their team: they may inspire fear but seldom much more. They may suffer, Myers notes, the classic fate of hubris, of others failing to help them when times and the tides of fortune turn against them: “stay humble so that the people around you want to help you up, not knock you back down.”
This is good advice and not just in a self serving way but as a life tenet.
Leaders should also demonstrate awareness and acknowledge to others their own faults: for the truth is their staff will know these faults intimately and in great detail and will not be deceived by Heep-like fake humility. Remember the proverbial but no less valid platitude – no man is a hero to his valet.
Ultimately the failure to recognise the strengths of others comes from a covert fear that we are weak ourselves: the urge to criticise and ridicule the ideas of others stems often from individuals own deep seated insecurities about their own abilities.
The kindest examiners I have found in academic life are those that are most able themselves. Equally those lacking a sense of humility are, as Myers notes “more often than not, the perpetrators of aggressive or tone-deaf actions [and] are motivated by subconscious drivers and fail to understand the damage they cause to their relationships and organizations.”
Much of the rhetoric of leadership in recent years has focused on the strength, the charisma, the power, the omniscience of leaders rather than remind us of the need for humility.
Humility has had something of a bad press. However there is a growing recognition that humility is not a weakness, far from it, and research has found that great companies tend to be led by leaders who possess a blend of humility and strong personal will: such companies appear to suffer fewer embarrassments too!