While wisdom and strength certainly are qualities of a good leader, there is something to be said about the importance of humility. Throughout the Bible, we see numerous examples of leaders blessed with all of the natural gifts and qualities of a strong leader but lost everything because of their pride. Their inflated sense of self-importance not just affected their circumstances but the circumstances of everyone around them. In this blog, Dr. Dennis Robinson continues his series on Leadership from the book of Proverbs explaining the importance of humility from a biblical perspective.

“Don’t brag about yourself before the king, and don’t stand in the place of the great; for it is better for him to say to you, ‘Come up here!’ than to demote you in plain view of a noble.” Proverbs 25:6-7 (HCSB).

Humility—it’s a popular word in leadership training, along with the ever-preached “servant leadership,” but in practice, I’ve seldom seen it put into practice. Many leaders I have known were constantly trying to push themselves forward and sometimes willing to step over others to do it. Ego seemed more important to satisfy than self-development. Here’s an amusing anecdote: When I was an F4 Phantom back-seater in the Air Force (the actual term was Electronic Warfare Officer or EWO), I was flying one day with a self-proclaimed “red hot fighter pilot.” Things didn’t go so well for him that day; the Flight Lead was on his case. As we were de-armed, he gave me his opinion of the flight lead in no uncertain terms and very colorful language. The control tower then broadcasted over the radio, “Eagle 2, you’re hot mic.” That meant everything he had just said was transmitted over the radio for everyone on ground control frequency to hear and that included the squadron’s front desk. That Captain definitely got a lesson in humility that day from the Flight Lead and the squadron’s senior officers! The problem was, he wasn’t that great of a pilot, and everybody knew it except him—he definitely could have used Solomon’s wisdom!

Serving Somebody Other Than Yourself

In his Customer Obsession newsletter post: Big Idea 2021: To Be Great, Be Humble , Fred Reichheld observed that “Humility, to my mind, is the foundation of a customer-centered world.” A fine observation—to be humble, think about serving somebody other than yourself. I’ve been a leader, usually in the service of higher leaders, for 44 years. Here is what I have observed. All my bosses saw themselves as humble (well, maybe not all the fighter pilots), but humility went out the door when you had an opposing opinion, and their idea was the only one that mattered. They differed in how they communicated that—some authoritatively, some condescendingly, and some through using the art of persuasion. Still, in the end, they made sure that their opinion was the one that prevailed. Can there be another reason other than ego for that to happen? I once opposed my leader in a board meeting (where he had made a point of wanting open discussion of issues), and when the board voted for my proposal over his, he shamed the board and me. Believe me—that never happened again!

5 Heads are better than 2

In the movie “What Women Want,” Helen Hunt’s character, the new boss, says, “two heads are better than one, five heads are better than two.” She, of course, is promoting teamwork over individual recognition in the creation of ad campaigns. Unfortunately, everyone else in the room is thinking of personal advancement in creating ad campaigns.

So, what’s More Important—Innovation or Recognition?

During my time as a mid-level officer in the Air Force trying to convince senior officers who had a high level of authority that they needed to take a certain action to accomplish a shared goal, I learned the art of persuasion—convince them it was their idea and you got it done. Often you didn’t get the recognition, but the goal was accomplished—what was more important? President Harry Truman said this:

“Do the Organization’s Objectives Trump your Own?”

In the best-selling book Theory Z , William Ouchi talks about the suppression of individualism in Japanese and corporate life. He tells of the evolution of the rice-growing villages and how the cultivation of rice required everyone’s cooperation, sometimes working in teams of 20 or more. No individual was more important than the other; the survival of the village was what was important. That cultural philosophy carries over into their corporate world. In fact, Ouchi compared ‘A’ organizations, bureaucratic and hierarchical, so common in the western world to the ‘Z’ organizations that he saw in Japan. In the ‘A’ organization, individual recognition was what mattered and was brought to the team. When visiting ‘A’ corporations and being introduced to people, he would hear things like: “This is John, recognized as the best marketing manager in the business.” When meeting people in ‘Z’ corporations, he would always hear about the team’s accomplishments, not the individuals. All the individuals got their self-actualization from the team’s achievements, not their individual contributions to it. Big difference, isn’t it? Examine your heart; do you feel self-actualized if your team succeeds, or only if you get individually recognized? The humble leader always allows the organization’s objectives to trump his or her own.

Humility Requires Ownership

“The most humbling thing a leader can do is accept ownership for the organization’s mistakes or failures.”

In their book Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin point out that leaders need to give credit for success to their team and take ownership of all mistakes and failures. One rarely sees that in practice, but this humble posture provides the leader with the chance to see and fix leadership and communication problems that create failure they might otherwise miss.

Humble Leaders Accept Every Failure as Their Own

In their book, Willink and Babin tell of the death of one of their team in a firefight in Iraq. The soldier stepped outside of standard operating procedure to accomplish the objective, and he paid the ultimate price for his actions. Not Leadership’s fault, right? They trained him the right way, but he chose his path. Wrong. The humble leader takes ownership even when a subordinate takes the wrong action. These leaders faulted their training and communication with this soldier and fixed those problems to stop future deaths.

What Will You Choose?

Tough choice. It’s far too easy in Leadership to point fingers when you should be looking in the mirror. Solomon’s wisdom: “Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18, HCSB) should convince leaders to walk in humility, but far too often, it does not. Humility must be consciously practiced; it doesn’t come to us naturally. It’s a fruit of the Spirit, and I challenge you to practice it.

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