Humility is the foundation of all leadership virtues. – Author unknown
Several weeks ago, I began a series of brief leadership essays, and proposed six core leadership qualities including humility, confidence, courage, truthfulness, civility, and grace. I promised to begin our conversation with humility.
In today’s business culture, you may consider humility as the antithesis of most every successful leadership quality. I beg to differ. There’s an ancient saying, “Humility is the foundation of all leadership virtues.” Jim Collins has famously said, “The difference between good and great leaders is humility.” And C.S. Lewis writes, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” In other words, it’s not about you. Humility means saying, “I made a mistake.” It means giving credit to others and the team. It means having a willingness to learn and change your mind. It means taking responsibility even when it’s hard – sometimes really hard.
When Brian Jenest and I started the company in 1988, it was easy to be humble. We had nothing. No clients. No projects. No reputation. We were working in a cramped upstairs guest bedroom with a borrowed McIntosh computer and a broken-down printer. We shared a used car purchased with a loan from Brian’s dad. Our desks were flimsy sheets of plywood on rickety homemade sawhorses. The company had a special ring on the home telephone.
A decade later we were in an uptown Charlotte office with almost 35 employees. We eventually grew to nearly 80. Then came the reckoning. What now? Pride? Arrogance? Conceit? No. We did not build the firm. The company was successful because of many, many others working countless overtime hours, giving up family outings, and making enormous sacrifices to meet deadlines and contribute to good design and engineering work. Sometimes along the way, we were hopefully leading from behind.
Humility is especially critical in these times when the pandemic has turned our families and businesses upside down. There have never been more opportunities to lead with humility. Next time we’ll talk about confidence.