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Be they ever so humble, is that what makes a good leader?

John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin published in the Harvard Business Review what they feel are the Six Principles for Developing Humility as a Leader which begs the question: Does a good leader need to be humble? If you pick through any list of "top CEOs" or famous leaders and it’s a fair bet that there will be an equal number of humble and ego-centric leaders amongst them. So is there a right answer?

Steve Jobs? I don’t think he had a humble bone in his body. Phil Libin of Evernote seems pretty humble and gracious in public (no idea of what it’s like to work for him). Military leaders—Colin Powell could be considered humble (especially if you read his autobiography), Norman Schwartzkopf, Jr maybe not so much—maybe they have humility beaten out of them coming up the ranks of the military. The authors of the HBR article make the argument that as an antidote to today’s society’s self-congratulatory and self-aggrandizing culture, humility is the right course for the 21st century leader. From the article here are their six points (or habits) that make for a more humble leader:

  • Know what you don’t know. 
  • Resist falling for your own publicity. 
  • Never underestimate the competition. 
  • Embrace and promote a spirit of service. 
  • Listen, even (no, especially) to the weird ideas.
  • Be passionately curious.

All required qualities in a good leader, but are they signs of humility?. The first point (and variations of it) is essential to startups and their success. The best leaders, the ones who make great things happen, have no illusions that they have all the answers. Smart leaders hire people smarter than they are to make the magic happen. That seems like a pretty smart idea in general, but maybe not a "humble" one.

The authors of the HBR article don’t get into whether these traits are truly signs of humility or just wisdom, however they do try to clarify an important distinction between humility and weakness or shunning self promotion:

First, let’s get a few things straight. Humility is not hospitality, courtesy, or a kind and friendly demeanor. Humility has nothing to do with being meek, weak, or indecisive. Perhaps more surprising, it does not entail shunning publicity. Organizations need people who get marketing, including self-marketing, to flourish and prosper.

You can give credit where credit is due and not be weak, understanding your flaws isn’t a problem—as long as they don’t define you. While the debate over whether a good leader should be more or less humble could last aeons, the truth is that in today’s world we have to be wise enough to see our limitations, find the people to help fill those gaps, and at the same time not let our limitations define or limit what we can achieve.

And make sure it all has a dash of humility for good measure.

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Inscape Consulting Group
Greg Nichvalodoff, BSc. BM (Honors), MBA, PCC, CMC
Office: 604.943.0800
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