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Humility and Its Role in Leadership

Written by Michael Lee Stallard

Imparting one’s values to others and judging them based on their values has the potential to createhumility's role in leadership a culture of self-righteousness and legalism. Mark Twain alluded to this when he described some people as “good in the worst sense of the word.” Don’t get us wrong, great leaders impart their values to others and judge others by their values. Herein lies the paradox. Some leaders who do this fail to develop what is arguably the most important character value: humility.

Humility is not easily developed when you have wealth, power and/or status. It’s especially difficult to develop humility without the help of others. Values such as work ethic, excellence and open-mindedness can be cultivated with practice. Not so with humility.

Humility develops in several ways. We absorb humility from being around family and friends who are humble. Humility also tends to come to those who experience adversity and suffering at some point in their lives. The Bible says suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. It is full of stories about individuals whose suffering made them humbler, wiser, more patient and determined.

Some of our favorite books deal with this topic. In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes about his struggles with depression and how it helped him find his calling as a writer and thought leader. In Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk, we see how Abraham Lincoln’s suffering from depression throughout his adult life developed humility and determination. In The Upside of Adversity, Os Hillman writes about how suffering from divorce and financial struggles shaped him in positive ways. Jim Collins described the humility of Level 5 leaders in Good to Great and how it often came as the result of a life threatening event or religious experience. I (Michael) wrote about how my wife's battles with breast and advanced ovarian cancer changed me in Alone No Longer.

Suffering reduces pride and develops humility when we hit a point in our lives that we are unable to make it on our own and as a result turn to God, and to our family and friends to help us persevere. It’s no coincidence that admitting one’s weakness, seeking a higher power and the support of others are key elements in successful 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Adversity and suffering force us to connect. As a result of experiencing suffering and having to persevere, we become humbler, kinder, more merciful and forgiving. These character values make us better at remaining connected with God and with the people in our lives.

Notice too that individuals who experience suffering and adversity often develop a groundedness that you sense when you’re around them. They typically have the moral confidence that influences others and they do so in a loving, patient way rather than forcing their values upon others.

In summary, imparting one’s values is wise so long as it comes from a spirit of humility. Staying connected with God, family and friends who help us grow in character keeps us humble so that we have greater influence on the values of those around us.

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Michael Lee Stallard and Jason Pankau are the co-authors of Fired Up or Burned Out. They speak and teach workshops on leadership, employee engagement, productivity and innovation at business organizations, social sector organizations, churches and universities.  For additional information see www.michaelleestallard.com (and for churches see www.lifespringnetwork.org).