The Humble Leader Paradox

How does a humble leader lead without becoming a door mat?

I believe the Servant-Leader mindset is the best sustainable approach to leadership.  But if you are not careful, it is easy to fall into the idea that to lead, you are supposed to be running around doing everything you can to make everybody happy.

But are you really going to be a better leader if you are always playing coffee boy or gopher girl when someone on your team has a whim?  In this post, we’ll look at this “Humble Leader Paradox” and give you a guide you can use to sort out the confusion.

humble leader paradox

The Humble Leader Paradox

There’s no shortage of commentary on blogs and in book about how a good leader is a humble leader.  In his ground-breaking book Good to Great, Jim Collins found that the leaders of the very few greatest companies were without exception very humble men.

They were remarkable in that they were unremarkable.  One such man Collins described variously as mild-mannered, lacking in pretense, and awkwardly shy.  But how does someone who is humble lead anything, much less a wildly successful multi-million dollar corporation?

The dictionary doesn’t seem to help much.  The Free Dictionary defines humility as “having a modest opinion of one’s own importance or rank; meekness.”

Yet it defines a leader as “a person who rules, guides, or inspires others; head.”

How can you reconcile the two?

The Level 5 Leader

One clue comes from Collins’ other finding about the leaders of the great companies: they were professionally willful.  They zealously and intensively focused on making their organizations the best that they could be.  They were willing to do almost anything to ensure the success of the organization.

They didn’t care about getting personal credit when things went right.  They weren’t boastful.  They shunned the spotlight.  They were calm, understated people.  Many of them lacked the personal charm or charisma you might expect of someone operating at their high levels.  (Note: he actually found that high-charisma leaders made things worse)

If you didn’t know better, you would say they were meek.

They were anything but.  The difference is that they were humble about themselves, but passionate about the organization they led.

Any personal ambition they had they channeled into the long term vitality of the organization.  Success to them was organizational success. It didn’t matter whether or not they got credit so long as the organization improved, achieved its goals, realized its vision.

The best leaders are personally humble, but professionally willful. Click To Tweet

Humble, Yes; Meek – No

It boils down to the idea that the concept of meekness as a part of humility has to go.

You can be humble in the sense that the focus is on others, on the organization.

And you can be quiet, understated, even shun attention.

But when it comes to the interests of the organization, you cannot be meek.  You have to be assertive.

Stuart Taylor calls this characteristic “Assertive Humility”  and defines it as “Courageous value-based behavior for the greater good.”

Assertive Humility: Courageous value-based behavior for the greater good. - Taylor Click To Tweet

What drives you to be assertive are your underlying values and the values and interests of the organization.  You act to ensure long term organizational survival and the well-being of its members.

Putting it into Practice

OK, so values and organizational survival are good ideas, but what does that look like on the ground on a daily basis?

At the risk of leaving something out, the following lists may help you get an idea of when to be humble, and when you might need to be assertive.

Be humble when:

•  You feel someone offended you (does it really matter?)
•  Your ego took a hit
•  You need to admit a mistake
•  When the team succeeds (pass  credit to those who deserve it!)
•  When the team fails (accept the blame as the leader)
•  When trying to build consensus
•  When getting input and ideas from teammates
•  When accepting well-intended constructive feedback (some call this criticism)

In some circumstances, as the leader you need to step up quickly and assert your influence for the good of the organization.  Be assertive when:

•  Safety is an issue
•  Any teammate is being disrespected
•  If someone violates team standards or agreed upon norms
•  People aren’t doing their job
•  People act in ways that pull the organization farther from its vision
•  It’s time to make a decision
•  Making sure the actions of the team contribute directly to the vision.

Getting Assertive

If you have to assert yourself, there is no need to suddenly become Mr. Hyde or pull out the Drill Sergeant routine.  You can be assertive with quiet authority.  In fact it is usually better that way.

The keys here are to focus on the problem behavior, point out why it hurts the team and impacts the vision, and come to agreement on what they will do to change.  Always keep the focus on the organization and the vision.  More detail on this idea here.

The Takeaway

Humility in a leader is good.  As John Maxwell says, it means you are confident and don’t need to draw attention to yourself, you are willing to let your work speak for itself, you are not above self-improvement, and you value the contributions of others.

But there are times when assertiveness in a leader is required.  To protect the interests of the organization in its pursuit of the vision, you need to be focused and ready to step forward and take action.  To do less is to fail to lead.

So be humble, yes.  But be assertively so.

Question:  What do you think of these lists?  What is missing?

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8 thoughts on “The Humble Leader Paradox”

  1. Oh my God! – Finally someone has unconfused the issue of humility and doormat. I have heard many leaders use the term humility to control, manipulate, dehumanize and lower the self-esteem of others. Often those others were trying to be helpful or simply being themselves but needed sound coaching on style or language. Thank You.

  2. Thanks Ken! I’ve been conflicted by these concepts for many years being a humble person by nature who’s had to lead a development team. I appreciate the clarity you’ve brought to this ongoing conversation in my head.

    1. Victor – thanks for the feedback! It’s a challenge to reconcile; I rewrote this one several times. A big help was coming across Stuart Taylor’s phrase, “Assertive Humility” He further defines it as having “a sense of purpose and a sense of modesty.” I think people expect vision and direction from their leader, but also want to know that what they do matters. The challenge to the leader is to provide both.

      Appreciate the comment, have a great week!

  3. Humility and servant leadership can be interchanged, but both are misunderstood in the world in which we live today. Someone once told me, do not put that you are a servant leader on the bottom of your email signature because people will think you are a servant, and you are not a servant. Interesting, but I did not take his advice thought I loved him dearly as a great friend and leader.

    It is a balance and when you mix in being a female leader then it adds another leader. I love humility, servant and leadership in the same sentence.

    1. Tharesa – I agree. Servant Leadership is the right approach but the name may give people the wrong idea.

      It’s not about “me” it’s about “us” and moving resolutely to the vision. The servitude is to the “us” and that vision, but sometimes it takes assertiveness to ensure accountability and focus.

      It is a balance, as you say, and not always an easy one. Being female adds another layer of complexity. Consider reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In if you haven’t – some great insights there.
      Thanks for the comment, and have a great week!

  4. Ken,

    This is a very cogent, focused piece on the essence of tranformational or servant leadership. I had not heard the phrase “assertive humility.” I like it…

    As in Collins, John Kotter, and in such texts as “Leading at the Edge,” and many others effective leaders have all of the qualities you outline. I would add that they also are the embodiment of the organization’s aspirations and values — and they are non-negotiable qualities. Your example, I believe, is at least in part reflecting the paradoxical life of Darwin Smith, former CEO of Kimberly-Clark. What a profile! A great example of these traits and being keenly focused on the vision (desired end state).

    I’ve been a student of leadership for about 15 years now, with a master’s in project management and now in the higher education leadership doctoral program at a large university. A critical challenge in higher education is to develop and maintain the ability to effect and accelerate positive change in order to achieve fiscal and operational sustainability.

    Thanks for your work and service to our nation!

    1. Mark – many thanks! Credit to Stuart Taylor (linked above) for the Assertive Humility phrase – it hit the right nerve the moment I saw it.

      Exactly right on Smith’s story. First came across him while reading “Quiet” by Susan Cain. He and those like him profiled by Collins resonated with me because they match my experience in the military – the best leaders I worked for were closer to Smith than Patton in temperament, and absolutely focused on the higher mission. The leader has to care, has to listen, seeks to understand, but at some point he has to decide and execute with focus and energy.

      My best to you as you pursue your studies; thank you for your great comment.


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