January 30

Fundamental Humility: The Foundation of Strong Leadership | WT #37

Have you ever known someone who was very successful at their job, but was impossible to work with? Someone who would be fired if it wasn’t for their production?

That person thinks they’re leading with their personal accomplishments, and those around them will just have to tolerate their behavior (and rationalize it as a cost of doing business).

I know what this person was thinking, because it was ME, early in my professional career.

I saw myself as productive in executing my mission (what I’m supposed to be doing, which I too narrowly defined as personal accomplishments to take care of my family). What I did not understand at the time was that I was actually counterproductive in how I related to colleagues. I believed that since I was a rock star in terms of production, they’d just have to put up with me.

And I was wrong; I was eventually fired. What’s interesting is that this scenario, including the negative results, repeats itself in front of our very eyes in business, government, and the church every day around the world… Do we ever stop to ask ‘why’?

My Take on The Problem

In my experience, what I failed to realize in my duplicity back then, was that I cannot do well in one area in my life while neglecting another. Because of my tunnel vision, I was a living example of what executing mission and not being a strong leader looks like. What does a strong leader look like? In my opinion, being prudent, courageous, just, practicing self-control and, oh yeah…humility.

Well, I was practicing those habits (so I thought). So, what’s the problem? The problem is, I wasn’t practicing humility first, before practicing the others. The right order matters. You have to practice humility before the others, because humility impacts your ability to practice the other habits successfully. Does this make sense?

The Results of the Problem 

Here are a few personal examples of weakness from different areas of my life (executing mission and practicing leadership habits without practicing the habit of humility first):

  • I’ve been that friend who only reached out to others when he needed or wanted something.
  • I’ve been that person in the community who only volunteered if there was some self-interest involved.
  • Lastly, I’ve been that parent who pressured their kid to achieve in order to project an image (damaging that relationship and dampening the child’s joy of life as a teenager).

Are any of these familiar? In these examples, in my experience, we justify this behavior by telling ourselves we are focused on mission, but it doesn’t make it ok.

Further, we could also very well be practicing prudence, courage, self-control, and justice, but without practicing humility first, we end up with more of the same weak leadership examples above and the results we see everyday in the world around us continue.

It’s humility, which takes strength to practice first (whereas pride dominates among the weak).

What Can We Do?

If I may, here are four specific ways I’ve found of practicing fundamental humility first:

  • It takes strength to act on the fact we’re here to serve others, not accomplish things for ourselves. Any other reason takes our attention from our real mission.
  • Everyone makes mistakes. It takes strength to remember that and forgive when someone else’s mistakes hurt us.
  • Everyone else has a mission as well. It takes strength to treat them like their mission is as important as ours.
  • Everyone has talents they were born with for the sole purpose of accomplishing their mission. It takes strength to recognize the talents in others and give them space and support to use them to do great things.

How would practicing these first possibly change someone’s behavior in the examples of weakness I shared above? 

Lastly, please take notice of one point that is not listed above. A common misconception of humility is thinking less of yourself. In reality, that is false humility, or yet another manifestation of pride.

Why? If you are (falsely, let’s be honest) thinking of yourself “…as nothing,” you are still thinking of yourself!

The common thread here: Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Fundamental Humility is the foundation of strong leadership.

About the author 

Darren Smith

Darren Smith is Co-Founder of the Authentic Leadership Institute. He is a native Texan and a graduate of Dallas Jesuit and Texas A&M University. Over the past 25 years, Darren has visited 35 countries and led 100 strategy programs. He and his wife have five children.


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