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Humility - a quality of a leader?

At the end of a leadership development seminar that I recently facilitated, a female participant who was part of the “top management” of a large international company came to tell me that, “this seminar changed my life.” And in effect, the person before me was completely transformed. When she arrived on the first day, it almost scared me how much she seemed self-assured, arrogant, impressive.  I now had before me a cheerful, open, attainable person.  She dared to cast off her hard outer shell that she thought she needed in order to be respected.

Numerous experienced managers, executives, and members of management committees have created an image of leaders that confines them to the role of imposing people who know where they are going and do not need others to get there.  Of course the leader needs to have convictions, the ability to see the big picture and a driving force.  Who would want to follow someone nondescript, lost in the details, wishy-washy? However, experience easily shows us the limit, even the danger, of domineering and over-confident personalities: they create a void around them and remain stuck in their representations of reality; their vision never gets off the ground.

So what’s missing? The capacity to welcome opinions, ideas, representations different from theirs; the flexibility to allow their point of view to evolve; the ability to help others around them to grow.  What they are missing is a vision of their rightful place, anchored in reality. This capacity is a virtue that draws its name from the earth – “humus” in Latin – humility.

The subtlety for leaders consists in constantly balancing between two poles: on one hand people with convictions, who look to the future and bring people along with them, and on the other hand people anchored in reality, who are conscious of the fact that they cannot do everything themselves and must welcome others.  Jim Collins calls these people the “Level 5 leaders,” the highest level in his classification (see Good to Great, Pearsons 2011).. 

Developing the capacity to manage this vital tension starts with knowing myself better. Do my preferences – i.e. my tendencies, my natural leanings – affirm my convictions or do they lead me towards a certain humility?  I can then identify what I would need to do to adjust certain behaviors, according to what is expected of me, what the circumstances require, or more profoundly what kind of leader I want to be.  However, what will allow me to truly change is not a single moment of realization but is trial and error.  If for example, the affirmation of my convictions is my natural leaning, I can try introducing more humility into my relationships with my collaborators.  Eventual benefits for me and/or for my organization will be indicative of being on the right track.  Without a doubt, I will discover that humility is a virtue for leaders, from the latin virtus: a strength. 

Édouard de La Moissonnière

Édouard de La Moissonnière