I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately, and what it takes to be a good leader. In conversations with leaders I admire, I’ve realized there’s one quality I respect most of all, and I think that this quality might be the most defining characteristic of a good leader.
By leader, I don’t just mean someone with a leadership title. A leader is someone who takes accountability for making a positive difference in the lives of others. Many leaders aren’t in formal executive roles.
So what is this quality? First, I’ll tell you what it’s not.
It’s not charisma.
It’s not confidence.
It’s not being knowledgeable.
It’s not even being a visionary.
Those are great and useful qualities, but they’re not the most important. The quality that is most critical to successful leadership, especially in human service work, is humility.
I used to rail against the concept of humility, but that’s because I misunderstood what it was. To define humility, we must first be clear about what it’s not.
Humility is not self-deprecation. It is not rejecting a compliment or affirmation if you receive one.
It is not ruminating on your insecurities. It is not shrinking yourself to avoid intimidating others.
It’s not apologizing for who you are.
All those things can masquerade as humility, but what they end up doing is making other people feel responsible for taking care of your discomfort.
Humility is both stepping into your strengths and understanding your flaws. It requires being confident in what you know based on your learning, and acknowledging that others have different, valuable experiences and knowledge. It’s knowing that what you think is right and true may change. It’s knowing that you don’t know it all, and you will never know it all.
Humility is being grounded in your vision of the world you are working to achieve, and knowing that you cannot achieve that vision alone, because no one can. Humility is understanding you are a piece of the solution, but you are never the whole solution.
Humility is knowing that you will do nothing perfectly. Your ego might want to avoid things you can’t do perfectly, but humility tells you try anyway because the mission is more important than the blow of failure.
Humility is hard. But it’s a practice. And it’s the most important leadership practice, because when leaders practice humility, it propels psychological safety. It’s magnetic to collaboration. It inspires.
The pathway to humility is self-reflection. It’s observing where you feel superior, and observing where you feel inferior, and not letting either of those things get in your way. Even if you’re a visionary, even if you know you’re right, even if you’re the authority on a subject, even if you’re really smart, even if you know why someone else is wrong, humility is realizing that being right is different than getting things done.
And even if you think you have the answer, you might not. Humility is the key to good leadership.
But I could, of course, be wrong.