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The Humility Shortage: Oh Lord, It's Hard to Be Humble When You're a Leader

Chad Hall

Discover how cultivating a forgotten virtue can increase your leadership potential.

Director of Coaching at Western Seminary
November 13, 2017

I grew up in rural North Carolina in the 1970’s when the local AM station spoke the news on the half hour, hosted the NASCAR report each afternoon, and let listeners peddle their used goods during the Saturday morning “Swap Shop.” In addition to these public service offerings, they played plenty of toe tapping country music. I never cared much for the music, but one of the station’s popular songs got forever stuck in my head—a Mac Davis cross-over hit in which the country music star opined on “how it feels to be alone at the top of the hill, tryin’ to figure out why,” before belting out the chuckle-inducing chorus, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble; when you’re perfect in every way….”  

During our nation’s most recent presidential election, I honestly thought Donald Trump might dust off an old Mac Davis album for use at his rallies. So sure of himself and his own perfection in every way, Trump boasted that he didn’t see any need to ask God for forgiveness.  

Humility is Scarce Among Leaders

Of course “It’s Hard to Be Humble” could also be the theme song for many—maybe most—of today’s leaders. Political leaders are not the only ones who resist humility. Rarely do we come across a high-profile leader willing to admit he or she doesn’t know everything about everything or who honestly shows an openness to having a change of mind. Humility is hard to come by for leaders in corporate, church, education, and community arenas.

Even those who want to be humble find it hard. One of my coaching clients, Mark, is a case in point. He’s a Christian and the CEO of a marketing company. He’s a man with a sincere heart for God and a strong calling to lead. He longs to be humble as he sees both personal and professional value in it. But exercising true humility and being an effective leader is no easy task. As he told me in a recent session, humility and leadership seem to be diametrically opposed. He’s not alone in that feeling.

Why Humility Is Hard

Who can blame today’s leaders for struggling to be humble? Leaders experience multiple sources of pressure that push them to be perfect (or at least appear perfect) in almost every way. Three powerful sources are culture, followers, and ego.  

Humility is hard because of culture. Our celebrity culture grants fame, popularity, prestige, and followership upon those who are deemed to be worthy. Twitter followers flock or flee based on how well a tweet slams or summarizes what’s going on. Stock prices rise or plummet based on the consensus confidence placed on corporate leaders. Leadership is essentially influence, which makes it difficult for our fame-focused culture to distinguish between admiring a celebrity and following a leader. In such a context, the question arises: How can we admire, trust, or follow an imperfect person? Our culture prizes those who see more clearly, think more sharply, decide more quickly, and go more boldly. What is true in the culture at large is similarly true in the micro cultures of companies, churches, and communities. We like winners. We follow the worthy.

Humility is also hard because of followers. Those being led often overly value the source of solutions. The axiom that leadership is all about influence can too easily get misinterpreted into a faulty belief that a true leader wins every debate, or the leader always gets her way. The logic seems to be if we’re not going to listen to your ideas, then we should make the one with the good ideas the leader, so please get out of the way. The notion that a great leader helps the best ideas win gets replaced with the notion that a great leader is the one who stands out by always having the best ideas and the strongest influence.  

Perhaps it’s hardest to be humble because of self. External pressure to “stand out” fuels a human ego that is all too ready to think more highly of itself than is warranted. Ryan Holiday sees the battle waged between ego and humility. In his book Ego is the Enemy, he contends that leaders who strive for success and then find it will quickly hear whispers from an anti-humility source deep inside: “Ego wants us to think, I’m special. I’m better. The rules don’t apply to me” (Holiday 99). When we think too highly and too often of ourselves, a healthy ego becomes polluted by narcissistic attitudes and tendencies, which in turn makes development of a humble approach even more difficult. When ego metastasizes, we end up like the make-believe President Francis Underwood, for whom personal power is the goal, and leadership serves only as a means to stay in power.  

A Real-World Example

My coaching client, Mark, feels all the pressures pushing against humility. The startup he founded five years ago has done amazingly well. The company is fueled by his passion, intellect, and sincere desire to make a positive difference. He’s one of those people who walks into the room and changes the weather immediately. In fact, his staff describe Mark as “a force of nature.” I’m not sure if they mean that in a good way or a bad way. I’m not sure they know, either.  

Christianity teaches us not only that humility is good, but also that humility works.

Mark is a leader in every sense of the word, but especially in terms of the amazing amount of influence he can wield. Yet, herein lies his humility challenge. His company’s culture supports the narrative that he is the influencer (in contrast to being one who should or could be influenced). His followers follow him, they do not question him, and they do not want to question him. His status as the alpha leader brings security and certainty to the company. They all recognize him as the smartest, most talented, most capable person in the room, and he mostly agrees—sometimes too much.

One of the reasons Mark hired me is so he can have a safe person (someone who is not in any way a stakeholder) to whom he can admit that he’s not perfect. Most of us don’t need reminders of our imperfection, but being a powerful and capable leader makes this a necessity for him. People in his company treat him like a lowercase “g” god. He feels the pressure to appear perfectly capable in all matters, and he’s starting to feel pride grow inside his soul like a dark shadow. Fortunately for him and those he leads, he actively resists pride, and he works hard to be humble. He’s doing so because he longs to be like Christ and because he is smart enough to know that humility makes good business sense.  

Why Be Humble? The Godly Case for Humility

Lack of humility eats away at the core of a person’s character. Even Christian leaders can think too highly of themselves, elevating the self above all else. We can give in to the temptation to make our home on a raised platform where we can be admired by others, find a safe distance from real feedback, and project our important voice above the clamor emitting from lesser beings. The Bible calls such an attitude “pride” and warns that it serves as the prelude to destruction (Proverbs 16: 18). Humility serves as prevention (and remedy, if needed) for pride. An honest account of our place in the order of things allows a leader to stay engaged in the business of leading while preventing her from falling into the pit of pride.  

Sometimes pride boils and blusters. Kings Herod and Nebuchadnezzar each serve as an example of a leader who inflated his ego and lacked the release valve of humility. When a balloon over inflates, it will soon burst. Such was the case with these kings.

Other times, a leader’s lack of humility masquerades as noble service. Moses assumed the burden of judging every single dispute for an entire tribe in transition before his wise father-in-law pulled him aside and called him to work more humbly: “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out” (Exodus 18: 17-18). Humility makes room for the contribution of others, which requires the leader to give up the insane preoccupation of being the know-it-all, do-it-all, best-of-all variable in life’s equation.

The most obvious reason for Christian leaders to embrace humility (even when it’s hard to do so) is that our humility pleases God. As the fall of Satan exemplifies, an ego that expands unchecked will cross meaningful boundaries and eventually grow to fill the space rightfully occupied by God. Pride is an offense to God and an injustice. On the other hand, humility is a subtle yet substantial form of worship. Humility is a confession of the greatness of God. A humble person acknowledges his limits and places himself properly in the order of things, beneath the authority and care of God.

While humility pleases God, there is also a practical aspect to humility. Christianity teaches us not only that humility is good, but also that humility works. As Augustine explores in The City of God, an enterprise founded upon the love of God will flourish and bring blessing to all who are part of it. Meanwhile, a city based on the love of self will crumble beneath its own weight, bringing despair and destruction to all who seek shelter within its walls.  

Why Be Humble? The Business Case for Humility

The business community is slowly coming to agreement with the Christian appreciation for humility—at least in terms of the practical benefits of humility. As Doug Guthrie of Apple University puts it, while humility may be a central tenet of most faith traditions, “It is rarely referenced in American business teachings. And it is certainly not what we teach in American business schools. On the contrary, we teach students to be aggressive, distinguish themselves, stand apart.”

Instead of learning the importance of humility while ascending to leadership, Guthrie learned it on the way down and out. Guthrie is now at Apple University because he lost his position as the dean of the George Washington School of Business. Why? He confesses, “the painful reality is that I lacked the important element of humility when I walked through the doors at GWSB. I thought I knew everything when I really had much to learn.” Guthrie’s rise and fall exemplifies the precarious place of leaders. In order to rise, leaders have to stand out. But when a leader stands out too much, or stands out by stepping on others, the leader risks being ousted.  

So Important Even a Chimp Should Do It

This same self-sabotaging behavior that got Doug Guthrie the boot can also be seen in hierarchical primate societies. Strong and smart chimpanzee leaders don’t overdo it—they balance power with a willingness to serve and connect.  

Leadership humility is one of the key factors for creating an environment in which employees feel included.

As Jane Goodall observed, male chimpanzees gain alpha leadership status through a combination of three traits: strength, smarts, and political savvy. But when the leader relies too much on strength behaviors (such as intimidation and physical assault) and not enough on political savvy behaviors (including service and deference acts that include grooming subordinates), his followers can revolt if they see an opening. Such was the case for Pimu, the alpha leader of a chimpanzee troupe near Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Pimu ruled for several years through brutal force and intimidation, but after he chased away his second-in-command one morning in 2011, four of his subordinates took advantage of the situation. They banded together and killed him.

What We Value In Leaders

Like our primate cousins, humans want a strong leader, but we will not suffer a tyrant very well or for very long. While strength is an important factor in determining whom to follow, so are the people skills so many leaders lack. Leadership researcher Jennifer Deal, asked nearly 6,000 people to rate the effectiveness of six common leadership traits: participative, team-oriented, humane-oriented, charismatic, hierarchical, and autonomous. No matter the respondent’s generation (Boomer, Xer, Millennial), they all rated participative, team-oriented, charismatic, and humane-oriented leaders as more effective while ranking hierarchical and autonomous leaders as less effective. Leaders need humility because it unlocks the essential social behaviors that maintain a healthy connection with those who are being led. Without the connections humility allows, leaders cannot be effective.

As another recent study by Catalyst shows, humility simply works. If leaders are those who influence others to do meaningful work, then humility goes a long, long way in accomplishing this outcome. Leadership humility is one of the key factors for creating an environment in which employees feel included. A greater sense of inclusion is linked to all sorts of positive outcomes, such as innovation, employee engagement, and sense of team citizenship. Hence, a distinct line can be drawn from humility to business success: humble leaders include others; employees who feel included perform better; employee performance drives business success.

Humble Leadership is an Inside/Outside Job

My coaching client Mark has worked hard to grow his humility and shrink his pride. When he first embraced humility, he overdid it. He began to question himself in ways that were counterproductive and created minor chaos. Thankfully, he corrected course and discovered what scientists have also learned: true humility “is when someone has an accurate assessment of both his strengths and weaknesses, and he sees all this in the context of the larger whole.” Mark now embraces his strength and smarts in service to his humility—and vice versa.

Central to Mark’s goal of being a humble leader is the herculean effort to change his company’s culture to accommodate and even promote leadership humility. In doing so, he’s helping his followers redefine their understanding of leadership strengths, smarts, and political savvy. For example, he’s emphasizing that a truly smart leader is one who recognizes great ideas and a truly strong leader is one who is capable of empowering and growing others.  

When Mark’s company faced a major crisis earlier this year his humble approach was put to the test. He told me that his natural inclination was to handle everything himself (after all, who else but the alpha leader could solve such an important issue?). Rather than step up and save the day, he wisely gathered a handful of key employees whom he knew to be bright, capable team players. Instead of telling them what to do, he facilitated a powerful problem-solving strategy session that he later admitted was ten times better than anything he could have produced on his own. Crisis averted.

Like a growing number of today’s best leaders, Mark is learning that the old Mac Davis song is true: yes, it is hard to be humble. But while humility is especially hard for leaders, it’s certainly worth it.  

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