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Lead With Humility

“I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” -Abraham Lincoln

Our openness to the possibility that we do not know it all—to challenge and question ourselves—might be the first step to getting over ourselves. Most of the situations we face are not anticipated. Our immediate response to the challenges we encounter is to do what has worked before. However, we may find ourselves addressing problems that are not rote models, requiring us to venture into unchartered territory and adapt to uncertainty. What to do as leaders in our jobs when faced with these types of decisions can be daunting.

Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management and an expert on leadership and culture, states one of the attributes that defines great executives is humility. In an increasingly complex world, humility is a necessary quality for leadership, as it allows us to create space to receive the input of others and develop and learn. Humility also enriches our lives and the lives of those around us, making us mindful of our own limitations. It’s an indispensable ingredient to living an abundant life and an essential virtue that forces one to live counter to acceptable norms, requiring a daily decision to let go of one’s ego.

When thinking about leadership, humility does not usually come to mind for most of us, but various studies have shown that it is a vital characteristic to achieving success as a leader. It’s OK to share mistakes in order to let others know that we do not have all the answers, to be transparent in the corporate setting and to engage workgroups for the professional and personal growth of everyone involved. Humility nudges us to be inclusive—to be open to varied perspectives which leads to the empowerment of others and ultimately demonstrates courage, ability and confidence.

Humility is often unduly dismissed as a necessary quality for leaders simply because it is misunderstood. Humility is “strength in weakness”—it’s admitting our own weaknesses and strengths while also acknowledging the virtues and shortcomings of others. It positions us for out-of-the-box reasoning, a corporate rather than individual mindset and a purposeful focus on the larger objective.

Leaders go beyond the call of duty—they attend to others’ needs.

A few years ago, I boarded a plane headed for Haiti with twelve very successful medical practitioners. It was following an earthquake that devastated the island, and for these men and women it meant leaving the comfort of their homes in the U.S. to provide care for a people they knew nothing about and who afterward they may never see again. While in Haiti, they worked tirelessly from dawn to dusk seeing the many injured and comforting the young and old alike. Their compassion, care and professional approach to each case was exemplary. One team member went beyond the call of duty to address the emotional trauma facing her patients. She spent countless hours sitting on dirt floors with sick children to not only address their physical needs but also address their emotional needs, going so far as to share her own clothes with those in need around her. In an unforeseen way, her actions sparked a transformative change in all the rest of the team. What wasn’t known at the time was that she had decided to put aside the pressures of her own personal upheaval to care for a hurting people. She showed self-sacrifice demonstrated through authentic caring and fueled by a personal sense of duty, simply by placing the needs of others first. The Apostle Paul writes in Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others”. I read recently that when one leads with humility, there is no job that is “too small”.

Humble leaders maintain objectivity.

Leaders who embrace humility are able to welcome the input of others and understand that decisions should be made in the best interest of the team or organization. People want their work to be valued, and they also value those who are not dismissive and embrace their positive contributions. The leader who is able to leave their ego at the door, accepts the individual strengths of their team members to work for the overall good or is able to exhibit trust that benefits the entire team, ensuring they’ll be well respected. Any team member will be excitedly loyal and productive when they recognize and know that their leaders are not afraid to work arm in arm with them.

This year let’s consider ourselves less than we usually do and pay attention to the personal needs of others at work, at home and in our neighborhood. Let’s not be distracted by the common expectations or tricked into believing that it is all about us. Leadership resolutions this year could include some self-reflection to enhance leadership perspective, help us learn from our actions and set the bar for our teams. Be a change agent. Lead by example. No matter how much we try to distance ourselves, we are still in need of each other. Our true measure is based on the number of lives we touch and not by the number of things we collect. And remember, “Humility is the mother of all virtues…” — Mother Teresa.

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