HUMILITY IS THE HALLMARK OF GREAT LEADERSHIP

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Irish writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

It is very rare for a great leader to be arrogant. This is usually the style of the weak and insecure rather than those who have a real understanding of who they are and what they want to achieve and how they plan on doing so.

I met a very interesting “old world” style gentleman recently at a dinner party in the house of mutual friends in Bordeaux. He and his wife were visiting the Bordeaux region for 2 weeks of their summer vacation, and seating arrangements at the table (we had a few more men than women that evening) meant that he and I were placed beside each other. We chatted through the evening about Scottish independence, the Pistorius trial, the perilous state of the euro, the Islamic State and a myriad of other topics.

Author: Erik van Leeuwen (bron: Wikipedia); GNU FDL; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Erik van Leeuwen (bron: Wikipedia); GNU FDL; via Wikimedia Commons


They were staying with other mutual friends of ours and we saw them a few more times while they were here. Each time I met him I found out just a little more about the man … he was always interesting to talk to, always well dressed, well spoken, knowledgeable about many topics, political, cultural, current affairs and business. Getting to know him was like peeling away the layers of an onion, my finding out more personal and intimate elements of him, his beliefs, his character, his background and personality, just one layer at a time as we got to know each other.

When I had asked him what field he was in, he had just said that he had an engineering background, but that he had moved into management early in his career. It was only after he had left France to return home that his Bordeaux hosts told me that he was the CEO of one of the UK’s largest companies, that he sat on a number of hi-powered boards and that he was an advisor to the UK government on business and international issues.

His humility bore the hallmark of a great leader. He obviously had a strong understanding of who he was and where he wanted to go and how he was going to get there, and he therefore did not have the need of projecting an image of self-importance. He was a great listener, didn’t pontificate, despite having strong beliefs and values, and spent time telling me stories and interesting anecdotes about some of the wonderful people he had had the privilege to work with during his career.

By Phillip Medhurst  (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By Phillip Medhurst (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Contrast this with a colleague of mine who after attending a senior executive development programme a few years ago now prefaces every second sentence with “When I was at INSEAD …”. He also, within the first five minutes of meeting someone new, will start listing his achievements, including but not limited to the size and splendour of his multiple homes, his collection of luxury cars, the exalted leadership position he now holds, and how the economic survival of Europe rests totally on his shoulders, like Atlas supporting the entire world. There is no subject in the world on which this man does not believe that he is a foremost expert, and he will always have a better understanding of any issue than any other person on this planet. I believe that this attitude of his own self-importance diminishes his position as a leader, and I know that his people also find it hard to cope with his arrogance.

When a person in a leadership position focusses mostly on himself, he has very little left in which he is able to focus on his people. A true leader when discussing successes will spend most of the time telling you about what has been achieved by his people, both individually and collectively, rather than about what he personally has achieved.

I have had several conversations with this person about his personal style, and it seems impossible for me to disabuse him of his belief that he is just exuding confidence (not arrogance), and that this is important to, in his own words, “inspire people to greatness by showing them what he has achieved, and therefore what they can also achieve”. Sadly I believe that this is a situation where one has to seriously ask the question of “Would anyone want to follow him if he didn’t have the title?”

Humility is the sign of great strength rather than of weakness, and is inherently attractive, and all true leaders understand that to be a successful leader they need to be able to attract really great followers.

Great leaders understand that success is driven by passionate people who come together to share a common dream and to achieve common goals and objectives, and will therefore ensure that people are made to feel important, and empowered, and therefore have ownership of what needs to be done. This means letting your people own the successes and outcomes, as well as the responsibilities, for achieving these. The less importance you place on yourself, the more importance you can place on your people.

Author: R. D. Ward; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: R. D. Ward; via Wikimedia Commons


There is no question in my mind that leaders need to exude an air of confidence and need to be able to inspire people about their vision for their team, but confidence has nothing to do with arrogance and self-importance.

True leadership involves convincing people that they have it in themselves to achieve greatness because of who they are and what they can do personally and as a team, and is never about how great is the leader and what s/he can achieve. If you are truly a great leader people will recognise that in you by themselves, by your actions, and when they do so, they will willingly follow you.

The 33rd President of the USA, Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) wisely said “You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.”

Uploaded by Scewing; via Wikimedia Commons

Uploaded by Scewing; via Wikimedia Commons


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