Want to Be a Great Leader? Emphasize Humility.

What are the characteristics and traits of effective leaders? Are they the ones who exhibit charisma and a hunger for authority? Perhaps. Yet there’s a more powerful characteristic that’s often forgotten: humility.

People who lead with humility in the workplace don’t need the spotlight 24/7. They aren’t driven to be right all the time. And they certainly know when to admit mistakes and ask for help. In fact, their humble attitude allows them to effortlessly motivate others without the need for a title, badge, or rank.

Looking back on my years leading others, I’d like to believe I always led with humility at work. Only, I didn’t. For the longest time, I felt the need to be upfront and (obviously) in charge. That attitude led me to stall — until I realized I didn’t need to be right. I needed to be right-sized.

Committing to Right-Sized Leadership

So what’s right-sized? To me, it’s about fitting into the role that’s needed at the moment. As a leader, I’m part of my company’s “body.” Sometimes, I’m the head, or the heart, or even the toenails. Working from a right-sized perspective, I always know where I belong and where I can do the most good.

I’ll give you an example of right-sizing in action: About a decade ago, our company was setting up a new home in one of our mobile home parks. The new home was replacing one that had been there for years and was beyond dilapidated. However, when we pulled the junky home off, we made a horrible (and smelly) discovery. The sewer had not been hooked up … for 20 years.

If you’re not getting the picture, let me make it clearer by explaining: For a generation, the people living in this home had been sending their waste directly into the ground. And the ground absorbed everything. Somebody had to fix this issue before we could put the beautiful new mobile home in place. So guess which “somebody” did it? (Spoiler alert: Yes, it was yours truly.) To this day, my team members still talk about that moment because they realized I would never ask them to do something I wouldn’t do myself — including the dirtiest work of all.

Of course, I realize the notion of humility in leadership and right-sizing before all else might fly in the face of most lessons about being in business, becoming an entrepreneur, or guiding a team. Case in point: Most MBA programs don’t include coursework on introspection. Instead, they concentrate on how to persuade and compete.

To be sure, this is changing somewhat: Many business curriculums do recommend that leaders develop and hone their emotional intelligence skills. That’s a good start for anyone who wants to practice humility in the workplace. Yet becoming humble isn’t merely about empathy. It’s also about being OK with giving up the stage — and expecting nothing in return.

As one Harvard Business Review article noted, humility and compassion in leadership circles might be especially tricky, as many individuals don’t see ambition and compassion going hand in hand (or rather, view humility as a weak trait in an environment where they must appear strong).

Again, I understand how easy it can be to see leadership as telling others what to do. However, that’s not a recipe for modern success. People have become collectively desensitized to unbridled ambition. And even though fear is still a widely used motivator, it doesn’t beget support, camaraderie, or morale.

Practicing Humility in Your Leadership

So how do you show humility at work and get on the right side of right-sizism? Practice the following steps to increase your “HQ,” or humility quotient:

1. Acknowledge your vulnerability. Yes, you might be a founder or CEO — but you’re also flawed like everyone else. When you stumble, own the experience and learn from it. You’ll set a great example for others by letting them know it’s OK to be human.

2. Seek ideas from others. A huge part of being a strong leader is getting information from the right people, no matter who they are. Forget about job descriptions or corporate levels; seek out the individual who’s the expert on what you need, whether they work in the boardroom, mailroom, or anywhere in between. Remember that everyone has a different (and valuable) perspective.

3. Know when to serve versus when to lead. Though you’ll always be part of a herd, you’re not always going to be the shepherd. Develop the wisdom to know when to take charge and when to sit back and remain part of the flock.

4. Seek your purpose. I’ve aligned myself with God’s purpose for me, which is to be a faithful family man and humble leader. This puts me at peace. You can feel content, too, if you embrace what you’re meant to do.

5. Let go of the wheel. COVID’s taught us all a lot about what we can and can’t control. Above all else, then, be flexible and open. You can’t use brute force to erase the pandemic from the face of the earth. On the other hand, you can rely on humility to guide you on how to help your people through the fog. As a final note, I strongly recommend that you occasionally peek at the Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr. It’ll calm your mind and get you ready to adapt to your next phase of being a leader with humility.

Want to take the journey toward right-sized humble leadership with me? Let’s connect on Facebook. I’d love to hear from you.

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