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Humility, the Litmus Test of Authentic Leadership

February 18 2019 - by Alicia Wellington, Management Consultant and an Alumna of CLP's Leadership Development Programme

Traditionally, when the traits of great leaders are discussed words like visionary, assertiveness, charisma, and decisiveness are often ascribed. However humility, as we will see, though an essential leadership characteristic, does not feature prominently in the discourse. Certainly, it is not listed in any of the top 10 leadership attributes which I have reviewed or made mentioned of in any business courses/seminars that I have attended. On the contrary, participants in business courses are taught to be competitive, stand out and get ahead.

Author Hans Finzel in his book The Top Ten Leadership Commandments identified what he calls the seven deadly motives for leadership: “prestige, position, power, popularity, personal gain, pride and a nice pay check.”  It is no wonder then that leaders with these deadly motives tend to be competitive, focus on proving themselves, accept all the credit for successes and ascribe blame to others for failures. As a result, they create organizational climates of mistrust, abuse and dissatisfaction.

Why is humility important in leadership? 

Dictionaries variously define humility as meekness, modesty and unassertiveness, but that does not mean that humble leaders are timid, weak or lacking in confidence. Ashley Merryman postulates that humble leaders have an accurate assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, recognize their own abilities and are secure in their identity.  These leaders empower their staff, embrace diversity and have greater influence than those who rely on ego and power.  Consequently, their work environments are characterized by low employee turnover and high employee satisfaction.

In a previous article, I referred to my difficulties with authentic leadership.  The question now arises, are my challenges in the workplace also affected by a lack of humility?  

How do leaders demonstrate humility?

  • Check their ego at the door

Admittedly, leadership requires confidence and belief in one’s ability to succeed despite the odds.  However, unlike confidence, ego is guided by one’s own selfish ambition, it seeks approval, accolades and recognition at all cost.  Egotistical leaders care more about themselves than the good of the organization or its people.  As a consequence, they do not engender the trust and support of their subordinates.

Humble leaders however, accept that they are not all important or more important that others or the organisation.  In essence, they leave their egos at the door.  John Maxwell, the author of Sometimes You Win Sometimes You Learn, sums it up this way ‘when we are focused too much on ourselves, we lose perspective.  Humility allows us to regain perspective and see the big picture.  It makes us realize that while we may be in the picture, we are not the entire picture.”  

  • Practice Servant leadership

A servant leader seeks to serve others rather than be served. She/He focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of her/his people. According to Hanz Finzel “servant leaders are team focused…their goal is to help make everyone else successful.”  

  • Admit Mistakes

Research by Bradley Owens and David Hekman suggests that the hallmark of a humble leader is her/his willingness to admit her/his mistakes. By admitting mistakes, the leader shows that she/he is human and ultimately improves her/his credibility in the eyes of peers and subordinates in the workplace.   

  • Forgive Others  

Because they are secure in themselves, humble leaders are gracious, empathetic and forgive others for mistakes and missteps. They create an enabling environment where employees feel unintimidated to fail.

So, in the context of the preceding, how do you evaluate yourself?

Are you humble enough to lead authentically?

Where does humility rank in your quest to lead authentically?

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ADChandler - Reply

Another insightful article by this blogger highlighting the oft neglected virtue of humility in leadership. I’m looking forward to more of these from her as she urges us to reflect soberly on our leadership challenges.  Write on! 

BDePeza - Reply

An insightful piece. Good food for thought.

The characteristic of humility must be explored more in the concept of authentic leadership.

Too many persons view a leader as unsure and timid with an admission of being in the wrong rather than one of strength and convictions.

In evaluating myself, there is room for improvement and a need to revisit what characteristics I wish to see portrayed by those in leadership roles.

Growth as an authentic leader can only be aided by humility. Keep on growing as you explore, examine and exemplify the tenets of an authentic leader.



Denise Dumas-Koylass - Reply

I endorse the principles espoused in this article. Effective leaders build an enabling culture based on trust. They seek to build the capacity of their team to deliver quality services to the clients through processes such as mentoring and coaching. Effective leaders focus on the "we" rather than "me". It's really not about their chance to shine, but about the bigger picture - serving the external and the internal customers.

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