Is your mental image of a humble person some version of obsequiousness, insecurity or weakness?

A better understanding of humility will greatly enrich our personal leadership skills

Contrast that with Jocko Willink’s description of the best leaders he worked under as “humble” men. Willink served in the US Navy SEALs for 20 years. Every SEAL is an extraordinarily well-trained and aggressive warrior, which is why SEALs achieved remarkable success in the most violent and dangerous places on earth, such as Ramadi, in Iraq.

A better understanding of humility will greatly enrich our personal leadership skills and allow one to be a leader that others want to follow. I use the SEAL example because it is so extreme. ‘Following’ in their context is not merely working enthusiastically for longer hours, but agreeing to go into harm’s way with no guarantee of returning. That is a different order of magnitude.

Humility is knowing what one knows and being justly proud of that. At the same time, humility is being very aware of what one does not know or cannot know.

Consider the surgeon introducing himself to a new team in the operating theatre before beginning a procedure. “I graduated from Harvard Medical School, in cardiac surgery. I hold a PhD summa cum laude. I have written 3 peer-reviewed papers and have been practising cardiac surgery for 22 years.”

Then he adds, “If you see anything I should know, I expect you to inform me. But, please, please don’t waste my time with nonsense.” He is unlikely to get any input from the surgical team at all.

If he was humble, he could introduce himself the same way, but looking at each person individually he continues: “But I don’t know what you know, Nurse Jenny. I have never been a nurse. I studied anaesthetics Matt, but only as an undergraduate — I don’t know what you know as a seasoned anaesthetist. And Sandy, I certainly don’t understand all that technology you are controlling here. This lady, our patient, lying here on the table, must leave here better than she came in. I need everyone’s contribution, everything you see, everything you know, will help. Please.”

Contrast the input and cooperation the surgeon will get now from the surgical the team. It is affirming of others’ ability and capacity to contribute. It is also deeply respectful of others ability to complement one’s skill and knowledge.

There is no doubt of the ethical value of behaving respectfully towards others. It is, however, also a demonstration of deep respect of others not to involve anyone who cannot contribute to the team in the project.

More fundamentally, it is simply good business, medical, and military practice to use others to their full potential. Allowing a colleague to believe that anything less than a full contribution to the project is acceptable, is appalling poor leadership.

Arrogance, self-importance, and demeaning of others is humiliating. Humiliation is the feeling that the status you believe you are entitled to, is not being granted.

When the lady in charge of the sterile linen introduces herself as ‘a member of the heart team’, you know she has a great team leader. And you know her contribution will be propelled by passion and purpose.

Guest Author Ian Mann

Ian Mann is from Gateways Business Consulting. He is the strategy midwife© who helps companies give birth to their best ideas. Ian specialises in strategy and leadership.