Think of a great leader and list the key strengths or characteristics of this person that were worthy of your admiration. The truly great leaders tend to share one common attribute that propels them to great heights while building huge flocks of loyal followers. They seem "grounded" in spite of their achievements. They have the ability to connect with "regular" people while soaring to new heights. They readily and openly acknowledge the contributions of others to their success.
All strong leaders know that no matter how high they rise, they need to have a strong foundation or their success will be fleeting. The pillars of this solid foundation are the principles of integrity and honesty and perhaps more importantly, humility.
"Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. Do you plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility." - Saint Augustine of Hippo.
You may be puzzled that we are talking about "rising" and "piercing the clouds" in the same sentence as the word humility. Surely to achieve such success requires a bold conqueror who bravely leads the charge to obliterate any obstacle along the way. There is surely no room for humility in that. We often equate humility with submissive and weak behavior. That is not what humility is, at all.
"The first test of a truly great man is his humility. By humility I don't mean doubt of his powers or hesitation in speaking his opinion, but merely an understanding of the relationship of what he can say and what he can do." – John Ruskin
Humility in leadership requires an honest and open assessment of the leader’s own abilities and the contribution of others. Being humble does not imply in any way that we doubt our own abilities, nor refrain from asserting our ideas, nor boldly charge forward. Humble leadership requires great strength of character and it can produce even greater results for the leader and the people under their charge.
Effective leaders earn the loyalty, dedication and respect of people who follow them regardless of the degree of challenge in the journey. The rungs of the ladder to success are the backs of the people who lifted the leader to the top. Wise leaders tread lightly and never forget who got them to where they are. Many people reach the top by stepping roughly on the people around and below them. The people on whose backs they stomped will never forget the way they were treated. When such a leader calls on all those broken backs to rescue them, they will be met with silence. The ladder that hoisted them to the top will disappear. They are paper tigers, not real leaders.
A perfect example of this principle of servant leadership was a statement made by Nelson Mandela on the day of his release from prison. With this one statement, Mandela instantly earned the respect and trust of all of the people of South Africa, enabling him to lead the country peacefully into a new era.
"I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands." – Nelson Mandela.
Note the use of the phrase "earn the respect". When a leader engages in a lot of self-promotion to convince the world at large that they are great, nobody is fooled. Worse yet, if the individual really is a lousy leader this publicity will only enhance and reinforce that impression.
"What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself." – Abraham Lincoln.
Instead of focusing all that energy in trying to convince people that that they are great, just be great. By doing good things for other people, they will develop relationship equity with the people who are likely to tell someone else that they have helped them. The leaders will be that much greater if other people were singing their praises on their behalf. All it takes is earning their respect and acknowledging their contributions and value to the leader’s success.
All leaders do have weaknesses. However, it is not necessary for leaders to admit the many things they cannot do, or that they make mistakes and fall on a sword. Chances are someone in the team or perhaps an outsider is strong at something that the leader considers a personal weakness. Enlisting the support of this person and working together produces a better result and demonstrates to the team that the leader knows how to lead.
Acknowledge mistakes, but stay focused on the mission and goals and get the team to help move forward. This will build trust and strong team bonds that will allow the leader and the team to ride safely over the many speed bumps that are to come in the business journey.
"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.
A leader who manages change by focusing on the vision of the business and engages the team to execute the mission will build a solid foundation for success, professional and personal.