The Most Underrated and Misunderstood Leadership Trait

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: {a person}, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody... He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

In the classic, “The Leadership Challenge,” humility is part of Kousez and Posner’s research on what {good} leaders do and what constituents expect.  It’s a core leadership trait.  They describe humility by looking at its root word, “humus” meaning “being of the earth” or as they put it “down to Earth.”  I think it’s much more than that but it’s a great starting point.   As kingdom driven leaders, we can see that humility isn’t just a key characteristic of good leadership but rather it can help motivate us to reflect Christ’s love and leadership.

So how can such a fundamental leadership trait be underrated?

Humility isn’t what you think

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself lessRick Warren, Purpose Driven Life

Let’s first decide what humility is and what it isn’t.   The quote about thinking about yourself less vs thinking less of yourself gives us the gist but it doesn’t capture what it really means to be humble.   Rick Warren actually took inspiration from this quote from CS Lewis,

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: {a person}, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody… He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 8, “The Great Sin,” Kindle location 1665

The most humble person on the planet, Jesus, modeled it for us.  Jesus never once considered His own needs.  He wasn’t a nobody and he wasn’t weak or timid, because humility is influential power under intentional control.    Jesus was intentional in every action and chose things that often seemed beneath His position even as a human prophet, let alone God of the universe.   I think a lot of leaders hear the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and think that means they need to clean the toilets at their workplace or something.   That could be something God calls you to do, but simply cleaning toilets when you’re the CEO isn’t going to make you humble.

What makes you humble is making the conscience choice to value other people’s interests over your own in the most intentional way possible.   That might sound like your letting people walk all over you but that’s actually what makes defining humility so hard.  Humility could be simply listening to someone and letting them get their thoughts finished before delivering an answer.   Humility shows up when you’re helping on a project even if you aren’t a stakeholder.    Sometimes being humble in a situation like an employee termination is acknowledging that you serve the entire company and that it’s up to you to make sure this person leaves feeling valued but that you absolutely can’t allow them to stay.

Humility Builds Trust

Patrick Lencioni writes that trust is the fundamental foundation of a highly functioning team (5 Dysfunctions of a Team).  When you’re intentional about being humble, you are willing to admit mistakes and be transparent.   Ironically, a lot of leaders think they are going to appear weak by admitting mistakes and or revealing too much about their upcoming decisions.   However, it’s that admission that makes them appear to be transparent and authentic and thus easier to trust.    Trust is one of the most valuable currencies you can build as a leader.   Even though you can lose it all by one small action, building trust can often be the difference in truly leading a team at the highest level of leadership vs leading a group of individuals by position.

Humility Builds Value

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.” But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”Luke 10:38-42

Notice Jesus didn’t say, “Martha, don’t you know who I am?”  She knew.  His response was just as much about how we should respond to Him as well as how we should respond to one another.

While you don’t allow others to walk over you, you do recognize that each human was made in the image of God and deserves respect.   It causes you to slow down enough to be intentional with relationships.   Driven people often struggle with deriving value from what they do and it’s often hard to value the relationships, even though that’s the upside-down kingdom that God calls us to.  The “doing” he’s calling us to, is to be value adders to other believers and non-believers alike.  That usually begins by humbly recognizing that what you think you have to do isn’t as important as the person.   Remember, Mary and Martha?    Being humble often translates to being a listener.   More than anything, this generation wants to be seen, acknowledged, and heard.

Humility Helps You See The Bigger Picture

Humility is considered a leadership trait because it allows you to build trust and value your team, but also because it lets you see the bigger picture.   The opposite of humility would be pride.  A prideful person often thinks about themselves quite a bit.  As a leader, your job is to cast the vision and help drive your followers to the destination.   However, when you’re focused on yourself it’s almost impossible to see anything else.   It’s as if you’re looking in the mirror.   A mirror can only look at yourself and your past.   Instead, you must look forward out of the windshield to see where you are wanting to go.

Humility is often misunderstood as something you do, but instead, it’s more about who you are.   It’s underrated often because the leaders we see elevated are positional leaders with little to no humility.  However, an intentional leader that works on growing in humility (their influential power under control) can multiply their leadership efforts in ways that no leader could do with any other supposed leadership trait.


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