“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



Most people when considering the subject of leadership tend to look to the examples of some CEOs such as Steve Jobs of Apple or Jack Welch of GE, or great national leaders such as Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, who built one of the wealthiest nations in the world on a small rock just south of the Malaysian mainland, or Winston Churchill who lead Britain during the Second World War.

Author: Hamilton83; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Hamilton83; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I have long believed that Steve Jobs was a great gadget designer who took on mythical leadership status on his death, but who had always really been an erratic, despotic and egomaniacal CEO. (see “Are Fanatics or Fools the problem” posted April 23, 2012), and that Jack Welch had great success at GE, but gained fame more as a published celebrity than as a great leader.

Author: matt buchanan; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: matt buchanan; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Lee Kwan Yew had a dream about what Singapore could become and was able to get the people of Singapore to believe in that dream as being their own, but drove his people through edicts, and control of every element of the people’s lives, including at one point dictating the allowable length of their hair, and Winston Churchill had circumstances dictate his situation when Germany declared war in 1939.

Whilst I do admire many elements of what all these men achieved, when it comes to defining true leadership, I prefer the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French Pilot and writer (1900-1944) who said “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”.

That is why I believe that to find true leadership, one has to look beyond most CEOs and Presidents, to people who because of their vision, commitment and courage, even in the face of death, were able to build a following who were also prepared to risk everything to achieve the dream that their leader had presented.

Here is my nomination for the “Great Leadership Award” during my own lifetime.

Malala Yousafzai … A leader at 14 years old

At the age of 11 Malala started writing a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban in the Swat Valley, and about her dream and vision for promoting education for all girls in Pakistan. As she rose to prominence, she began giving press and television interviews, with the NY Times filming a documentary on her life and her mission to ensure all girls had a right to be educated. In October 2012, when she was 14, Taliban gunmen tried to assassinate her while she was returning home on a school bus. She was shot in the head and neck, and after treatment locally, was airlifted to the UK for intensive surgery and rehabilitation. She has now been released from hospital and she has vowed to continue her fight despite the on-going Fatwahs being issued against her.

Author: Carlos Latuff; CC0 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Carlos Latuff; CC0 1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

She has been nominated for the International Children’s Peace prize, the National Youth Peace prize, Game-changers 2012, Time Magazine’s person of the year and is the youngest person to be nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. Schools have been named after her. Former First Lady Laura Bush, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and a legion of celebrities such as Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Tina Brown have launched and endorsed a campaign to raise money to provide education for all girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On 15 October 2012, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, launched a petition to the Government of Pakistan in Malala’s name, the main demand being that there be no children left out of school by 2015.

The petition contains three demands:

-We call on Pakistan to agree to a plan to deliver education for every child.
-We call on all countries to outlaw discrimination against girls.
-We call on international organizations to ensure the world’s 61 million out-of-school children are in education by the end of 2015.

John Quincy Adams said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

I believe that by any definition, Malala Yousafzai has exhibited all the true characteristics of leadership that we too readily attribute to people who have been elected to public office (mostly with only a small majority), or those that have fought their way to the top of a corporation, generally measuring them by financial and share price growth.

The dictionary defines Leadership as “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task. The leader may or may not have any formal authority, but traits include situational interaction, function, behavior, power, vision and values, charisma, courage and determination and intelligence, among others.”

I believe that a leader not only has to have a clear vision, but must be able to share that vision with others in a way that will make them willingly follow, and that a leader is someone who steps up in a time of crisis, or to right a human wrong, without any regard for personal safety or personal gain.

In this respect, I believe that Malala Yousafzai has the right to step up beside the likes of National leaders such as Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi, and definitely has as much right as those CEOs that some tend to elevate to Leadership status such as Steve Jobs and Jack Welch.

As was summed up by one of Malala’s classmates “Every girl in Swat is now Malala. We will educate ourselves. We will win. They can’t defeat us.”

For me, that’s a real sign of true leadership.