In The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, my co-author Karl Haden and I place Humility first among the virtues. Why? Because we believe that it is, in many ways, the foundational virtue, especially for leaders. Stephen R. Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls humility “the mother of all virtues,” and we believe that is an apt description.
When we say humility is the “foundational virtue,” we mean that it is the one virtue from which all the others arise and the one that makes all of them possible. An individual may possess, or at least appear to possess, any of the other virtues, but if that individual lacks humility, we do not in the end regard him or her as a virtuous person.
This is especially true for leaders. As Ken Blanchard has made abundantly clear in The Servant Leader, humility is the sine qua non of leadership, in that it prompts us to set aside our own selfish agendas and focus on serving those we lead.
Even so, this is a very difficult concept for many leaders to grasp, or at least buy into. Many people in leadership positions got there by the force of their personality and/or intellect. They’re used to telling people what to do and being obeyed. Thus they tend to have outsized egos, which on the surface seems to be the opposite of humility.
Yet having a healthy sense of self does not mean that someone cannot be humble. Indeed, in some ways it is a necessary prerequisite for true humility, as opposed to low self-esteem. Only those inclined to think well of themselves, and with reason to do so, can truly exhibit meaningful humility. Being humble means suppressing ego, setting aside one’s sense of self in favor of a sensitivity to others. You can’t suppress something you don’t have to begin with.
Nor does seeking humility mean that one cannot project strength when strength is called for. History provides many examples of great leaders who were both humble and strong: Jesus Christ, Ghandi, Dr. King.
For those leaders who are struggling with this idea of humility, or who frankly don’t see the need for it, we would like to offer the following observation, perhaps as a form of motivation: unless you first seek humility, you cannot possibly acquire the other leadership virtues.
Without Humility, Honesty becomes little more than a bludgeon with which to establish one’s moral superiority.
Courage becomes mere foolhardiness—or worse, false bravado.
Perseverance becomes pure stubbornness, pigheadedness, often in pursuit of an unjust (or at least less than worthwhile) cause.
Hope becomes wide-eyed optimism, edging toward fantasy and certain to be disappointed.
Charity becomes mere self-love, or else a tool for manipulating others.
Balance becomes a futile attempt to reconcile warped priorities.
Wisdom becomes conceit, contempt for those (supposedly) less wise, and ultimately self-deception. (Think Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.)
And Justice becomes the servant of the powerful—or, as Thrasymachus puts it in Plato’s Republic, “nothing else than the interests of the stronger.”
Remember, if you want to be a better leader, you must start by becoming a better person. The road to self-improvement, we believe, lies through embracing, practicing, and internalizing the 9 Virtues. And the first, indispensable step on that road is to begin seeking humility.
(For some suggestions on how to do that—and to read an excerpt from the book—see this earlier post.)