Humility in Leadership

Humility in Leadership

Humility in leadership

We know that confidence – genuine, substantiated confidence – is essential for leadership of any kind. Increasingly we recognise the inconsistency of over-confidence. Brutish confidence of the Trump sort tells us a different story. It says the user of such flatter-speak is not really confident at all but rather lacking the moral judgment that is at the heart of all those who can hold their head high. You’ve only succeeded when you have nothing more to prove.

But we also know that false humility is as bad as false confidence. Great writers have always portrayed excessive cringing as a form of begging without the nobility that a real beggar has. So what is true humility? Where do we find it? How can we acquire it? Do we need to?

I have seen real humility many times and it is always beautiful. Surprised that I should use such a word to describe it? Beauty to me is strong, simple, honest, clean, caring. I should add confident. Mother Teresa’s face was lined with age wrinkles and exposure to sun and wind. It was beautiful for the way it did what I have described. It’s a paradox that true humility is confidence born of truth. That is why the strong are often both confident and beautiful.

People who are self-deprecating are usually not intentionally false but slightly arrogant. Oh dear, one paradox after another. Shyness is a form of arrogance. It says ‘what matters is how I am seen, what impression I make, how can I increase my impact on those dealing with me’. Wisdom tells us that the greatest impressions are made by people who are not thinking about themselves but about you, the other person in a conversation. There was a saying from the big international wars of the last century: “Greater love has no man than that he lays down his life for his friends”.

Sacrificing yourself for someone else is the greatest act of humility you can perform. It is a statement that they are worth more than you. A statement made not in words but in deeds, as most truly humble statements are. We now understand that most war is outrageous, pointless and wicked. On a less dramatic scale, sacrificing your ego in order to help someone else is also an excellent expression of humility. There is an easy way to sum up how humility should work for the benefit of others. Forget about yourself and think about them.

Why do leaders seem to find this so difficult? First, because they lack the confidence that they can do the job to which they have been appointed. Understandable, really. Today’s jobs are complex, fast-moving, exposed, sometimes rough. Tenure, which used to be anything from twenty to fifty years, is now about six. Rush in, make your mark, rush out. And there’s a heart of humility – being able to know you’ve made your mark without having to be seen to rush at it.

‘Old Charl’ wasn’t that old – about forty-five when I was fifteen. His wizened face, bushy eyebrows and broad Dorset accent, combined with a more-or-less permanent smile of welcome, made him one of the great characters I met as a child. Nothing upset him. He regarded nature and the seasons through which it passed as a kind of living clock, one that not only told the time but described a version of eternity, too. When I asked questions he asked me questions back, turning the exchange into a dialogue not just a Q & A.

I remember particularly his words when I was feeling low, probably because of some exchange with my parents. He got me to point out to him that we didn’t find the key to perfection in military organisation or unblemished, systematic accomplishment but in the mystery of grass growing in the spring. Not a uniform, predictable growth but a sporadic, random struggle to see the sun. I was proud to think I was like the grass.

Because pride in the right place is the essence of humility. Not a pride that requires noise and flattery but a pride that says ‘thank you for letting me do that’.

It is pride, but its major component is gratitude.

For gratitude is humility at its very best.