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The Humble Leader
by Leroy McCarty

"The chief executive who knows his strengths and weaknesses as a leader is likely to be far more effective than the one who remains blind to them. He also is on the road to humility, that priceless attitude of openness to life that can help a manager absorb mistakes, failures, or personal shortcomings."

John Adair quoted by Henry O. Dorman in The Speaker's Book of Quotations (1987)

There are two profound statements in this quote. The first is about the benefits of understanding and accepting your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. The second is about the benefits of being humble.

Some people are so wrapped up in the notion that leaders are supposed to know everything that they fail to study and understand their strengths and weaknesses. They fall into the trap of trying to lead an organization in an evolving world without actually evolving themselves. They make decisions based on old knowledge, assumptions and habits. They fall into a rut and wind up repeating past mistakes and missing key opportunities.

Understanding your strengths and weaknesses creates a great opportunity to grow as an individual and as a leader. If the leader stops growing then the organization stops growing as well. Organizations with leaders who openly understand and develop their strengths and weaknesses create an environment where everyone else will do the same. As the leader grows, so grows the people and as the people grow, so grows the organization.

As you focus on your own personal development be sure to share your progress with those around you. Short of very personal issues, there is no real harm in letting people know what you view as your strengths and weaknesses. In fact, solicit others about what they view as your strengths and weaknesses. If you get the opportunity, look into a 360-degree appraisal where you get direct feedback from your manager, your peers and your direct reports. The information can be quite enlightening and become a solid foundation for your personal development plan.

You will connect at a much deeper level with your manager, peers and those that report to you. You will make them feel more comfortable about exploring their own opportunities for development. As they see you make progress, they can start to envision their own progress. The leaders of an organization set the tone for how personal development is viewed. Make yours a learning organization by creating a development friendly environment.

Humility is one of those leadership traits you do not see as frequently as you should. Humility is often perceived as a weakness when, in fact, it can be a tremendous asset. The leader who is humble rarely allows the power of their position to cloud their judgement. The leader who recognizes they are not perfect creates an environment where those around them feel comfortable making mistakes and taking chances.

What is your tendency when someone starts explaining something you think you already know? Do you interrupt to make sure they know you already know what they want to talk about? The next time this happens, try something new. Listen. Let them finish their explanation. Probe for more detail. You might be surprised and discover something you did not already know. You might walk away with more knowledge than had you interrupted them to stroke your own ego.

The humble leader assumes they do not know all the answers and allows people to explain things to them. They look for the opportunity to learn something new and they use every opportunity to make others feel valued. The humble leader knows the world around them is changing faster than they can keep up and is grateful for the opportunity to learn something new or reinforce knowledge they might already possess.

This is not to say that you need to act stupid to be humble. There is no harm in someone walking away knowing you are knowledgeable so long as the process did not leave them feeling "less than you." Sharing your wisdom is important, but must be done in a way that "lifts the other person up."

How do you do that? Simply weave your wisdom into the conversation without letting it dominate the conversation. Ask lots of questions and when they give their answer, validate them first, then add your comments laden with your knowledge and guidance.

In the act of being humble, you make others feel important and valued. That is the gift of the humble leader. Focus on your humility and you will find it can lift a weight from your shoulders. It takes a lot of effort to pretend you know it all. Besides, it is more refreshing being around people with some humility. Arrogance gets old fast.

Leroy McCarty is a student, teacher, and freelance writer on the topic of leadership living in Overland Park, Kansas.

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