Whenever I speak about the disciplines of leadership, it’s always humility that gives clients and colleagues the hardest time. The courage to move forward, take risks and weather criticism seems obviously necessary for leadership. The character to keep going when the going gets tough - and the going always gets tough - seems self-explanatory as well. There is an intuitive understanding why leaders see and focus on possibilities, even as they are realistic about barriers and constraints. And we can easily grasp why empathy encourages collaboration, even though both are far more difficult in practice.
But humility? Aren’t leaders supposed to project strength and confidence? Behind this frequently asked question is the assumption that humility is somehow associated with weakness and insecurity. Strength and confidence are necessary for leadership but they must be balanced with humility.
It is strength that pushes us forward in the face of difficulty. It is humility that keeps us open to course-correction when required. It is strength that allows us to tackle the difficult problems. It is humility that reminds us others can help find solutions. It is strength that pushes us to ask the necessary, tough questions everyone fears. It is humility that allows us to hear the answers.
Leaders that are confident can add real value. Humility reminds leaders that others can also add value. A leader must be confident enough to speak their mind. Humility invites others to do the same. It is confidence that allows a leader to make a decision in a timely manner, even when much is still unknown. It is humility that allows a leader to say “I don’t know” or “I need more information to decide." A confident leader understands their own capacities and interests and leans on them. A humble leader understands equally well where they are less capable or interested and leans on others who bring different, complementary capabilities.
Without the leavening of humility, strength and confidence become arrogance. Over time, arrogance can become a huge problem - both for the leader and for those around the leader. An arrogant leader thinks they know better, can figure things out faster, have the right answer sooner and have a vision no one else truly understands. An arrogant leader believes their own strengths will always compensate for their weaknesses. An arrogant leader becomes isolated quickly. When you know it all and can figure it all out, why seek input or advice from anyone else? An arrogant leader prizes loyalty over candor. An arrogant leader directs and declares but rarely asks or reflects.
There are real consequences to arrogance. Arrogance creates an environment where people learn to say what’s expected - not necessarily what’s true. Arrogance builds an organization that waits for the leader to decide, does not question and relies on the leader too much. That kind of organization does not learn or adapt. While it may not happen right away, arrogance leads to a situation where something important will be missed, a big mistake will be made, a necessary pivot will never occur. When strength and confidence become arrogance, failure will eventually be the result. Sustained success demands the practice of humility.