The Loss of Humility

I repeatedly witness and lament the loss of humility in leaders today, especially those in government (whom I no longer call leaders but, rather, the more fitting title of politicians – though I choose not to ‘go there’ in this particular essay).

The challenge every leader faces in tumultuous times is to balance the critical need to demonstrate supreme confidence with the requisite imperative of displaying genuine humility. Without confidence, others can have little confidence in us; without humility, we cannot get better. While seemingly a paradox; it is not irreconcilable. It’s the yin and yang of leadership – inseparable though not contradictory.

As Lance Secretan, an accomplished executive coach, observes: “The inflated sense some leaders have of themselves, their certainty of being ‘right’ and their inflated sense of their skills, knowledge and values can sometimes be breathtaking, and the data shows that this is a major cause of corporate failure.” He goes on to say that “more humility in leadership would be a blessing ….” I share his view.

I have written extensively on this topic and here is what I believe: When leaders profess their humility, explicitly and often, they are really trying to convince themselves. Humility is expressed in actions, not in words. It is having a healthy relationship with uncertainty and the inevitable discovery of how little we actually know (or can know). In a word, it is modesty. As C. S. Lewis writes, it is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

Humility is an attitude of self-doubt in a world filled with profound complexity, asymmetry and a level of unpredictability we cannot comprehend. It is openly displaying a beginner’s mind: one of insatiable curiosity and incessant enquiry rather than uncompromising certitude. It is in some ways a form of contrition and self-reproach. Like vulnerability, it is an act of courage.

I further believe that unbridled power eventually corrupts the soul. Like a cancer, power is invasive and, without humility, it metastasizes into evil. Some leaders have almost limitless authority and therein lies the seed of their undoing. The more powerful the leader, the more they are susceptible to the unhealthy cognitive distortion we call hubris. The problem isn’t the blindness of their narcissism. It’s simply a consequence of being human. Humility and confidence are interdependent but in constant friction.

We like to believe we are in control of our fate but the forces that drive our behaviours operate below our awareness. We rarely comprehend why we act the way we do because we are largely unaware of how deeply our emotions dominate our behaviour. Both our perceptions and reactions emanate from the peculiar wiring of our brains which has evolved over the course of millions of years. They make us see what we want to see, or what we were taught to see, and do what we think is necessary in order to succeed.

Our minds are governed by our emotions, not our rationality. Humble leaders are able to admit their irrational tendencies, minimally to themselves. Overly confident leaders are incapable of such introspection. They quickly respond to errors in judgment with defensiveness, if not outrage and personal counterattacks. They seek out evidence that confirms their cherished belief of superiority (borne largely by title) while disregarding the opinions of those who may disagree. They find fault in those who oppose their views and go to inordinate lengths to espouse their own.

As humans, we are programmed to revise our theories to fit the circumstances that may prove us wrong. We like to think our views are based on facts and conclude that those who disagree don’t “get it” because they lack our depth of understanding. We assume they are ignorant because we think we are not. We look into our hearts and see objectivity. We look into our minds and see rationality. We look at our beliefs and see reality. These are the convictions of confident people but they are also beneficial self-deceptions: because they give meaning to our existence.

In her book, The Joy in Loving, Mother Teresa offered guidance on how we can master the art of humility. She said we should speak as little as possible about ourselves and try not to manage the affairs of others while accepting their mistakes and contradictions cheerfully. She further advised us to accept being slighted, forgotten or disliked, to be kind to others (even under provocation), to never stand on someone’s dignity, and to always choose the hardest path.

One of life’s tragedies lies in discovering too late what we should have known. When we say we don’t know what to do, it’s rarely information we lack but the courage to ask for help. Humble leaders frequently ask for help. Rick Warren said that humility is not denying your strengths but accepting your weaknesses. Openly acknowledging what we don’t know is the essence of humility and the beginning of wisdom.

The timing of this topic is not coincidental. Leaders need to consider the merits of giving followers the gift of their humility. Because giving always gets. And ‘tis the Season of Giving.