In a previous post, I wrote that qualities of character in the CEO were a more important indicator of business success than the business model. In this and the next few posts, I’m going to share those qualities that I believe mark a great business leader.
First, a disclaimer. This is one person’s point of view. This is not the result of some study that surveyed 10,000 business owners. Instead, it is the result of my personal, anecdotal experience. I’ve spoken to and with thousands of business executives in the US and other countries, and personally and contractually worked with over 459 of them. I have, I believe, achieved a breadth of experience in the world of business that, coupled with a touch of wisdom, has a validity of its own.
With that disclaimer behind us, let’s tackle the subject.
Previously, I argued for these character traits: An unquenchable work ethic, an ability and propensity to learn, a continuous quest for MORE, unwavering self-control, and integrity. To that list, I’m adding a pervasive sense of humility.
On the surface, it seems like an unlikely candidate for a leader. However, once understood, it becomes a bedrock trait and a powerful asset in the psyche of an effective business leader.
First, let’s understand it.
Humility is often defined as the quality of being humble. The dictionary defines ‘humble’ as “showing a modest estimate of one’s own importance.” Synonyms include ‘meek,’ ‘deferential,’ and ‘respectful’.
It is often confused with a sense of weakness and obsequiousness, which is overly self-deprecating. There is nothing weak about humility. In fact, it takes far more strength to exhibit humility than it does to default to its opposite: Pride.
The greatest example comes from the pages of the Bible, and the story of Moses. He was tasked with one of the greatest leadership challenges of all time: To lead the entire nation of Israel – hundreds of thousands of men, women and children with all their herds and possessions — out of Egypt through the desert and into the Promised Land. And the primary character trait that equipped this 80-year old leader for the task was humility.
“Now Moses was a very humble man, humbler than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Numbers 12:3
Humility is not about self-deprecation or weakness. And, there is nothing phony about it. Rather, it is about having an accurate view of one’s own role, and an objective understanding of one’s own set of skills and characteristics. C.S. Lewis writes that the truly humble man “will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
Because it occupies such a visible space in both Christian and Jewish traditions, it is difficult to talk about it outside of its spiritual domain. It is interesting that of all the world’s major religions, it is uniquely a Christian virtue, articulated and promoted by the writers of the various Bible books, and embodied in the person of Christ. It was Christ who said, “Blessed are the meek and humble, for they shall inherit the earth.”
That’s a pretty big promise, but indicative of the ultimate power of humility to influence others. There is something about humility that attracts people. The humble person is easy to be around and speaks with authenticity that is unusual.
There is, however, a quiet power that oozes out of humility. It attracts sincere people and gains influence, and eventually subdues its more arrogant opposites.
It is the virtue that bridges the gap between our purely physical urges and the spiritual part of us. Clearly, there is something about humility that speaks to our higher nature.
But this post is not a treatise on the spiritual implications of humility, but rather on the business advantages of it.
Why is humility a powerful trait for a business leader?
Whereas pride repels people, humility makes one approachable. There is something both attractive and compelling about the humble person. Since the truly humble person will “not be thinking of himself at all,” it follows that he/she thinks more about us. Whether we are employees, associates, vendors or customers, we gain a sense that we are important to the leader with humility, just because he/she is not that important to himself.
We can voice our ideas comfortably and confidently, because they will be viewed on their own merits, and not compared to the leader’s own.
We can try new things, unafraid of failure, because the humble leader accepts his/her own failures.
In short, the humble leader creates a climate in the organization that allows people to be themselves, without fear of fault-finding, reprisal, or humiliation. By crushing those hindrances, the humble leader unleashes the strengths and spirits of those around him to
I’m reminded of the lyrics from a song Bette Middler made famous: “You are the wind beneath my wings.” Humble leaders help the people around them to soar.