Humility: The oxygen of strong leadership

Management and leadership have many areas of overlap, but not every function is the same. In our work, we spend a lot of time thinking about management. Our concerns revolve around the day-to-day – we think about things like an upcoming audit or the employee who called out sick on a busy day. Management is the function of processes, systems and performance measures. Management is critical. Leadership is the people function. Leadership is the function that is concerned with inspiring and motivating people rather than directing them. Leadership also matters. Leadership’s objective is to develop the full potential of the team, and the individuals that make up the team.

A good manager is also a leader – it is the person who keeps their eye on both the processes and the people with a genuine concern for both. In the best case scenario, the highest level of management leads the team, and the executives are chosen for both their leadership traits and management abilities. In other cases, an organization’s real leader is not the top manager, or even in a management role at all. One of the greatest conflicts between the two functions is the attribute of humility. Humility is a trait that leaders exhibit, which includes a willingness to put others over themselves.  This Harvard Business Review article indicates when a person is promoted to a management position, they become less likely to receive negative feedback.  This reality, coupled with the power that comes with authority can inhibit managers from exhibiting humility necessary to become true leaders.

Humility is also misunderstood.  It’s easy to confuse humility with traits that have negative connotations, and people overlook humility as a key leadership characteristic because it is a quiet trait in our loud society. It is the characteristic that makes others willing to follow because the follower knows that the leader has their best interest in mind. A leader also has a team with the potential to become strong leaders individually, because people are encouraged to live up to their individual potential. Here are a few definitions of what humility is and is not.

Humility is not self- deprecation.  This is the area where humility most takes on a negative connotation. Humility is often defined as not thinking of yourself above others. However, a humble person can still have strong confidence and take decisive action. A humble person is not someone who thinks poorly of themselves. A humble person is only one who does not place their importance above others, particularly those with fewer resources, influence or authority.

Humility is owning mistakes and weaknesses.  A humble person already recognizes their ideas might not be the best and are ok with the reality that they are wrong at times. They also recognize (and hire!) those under them who have strengths in areas they do not. A humble person can apologize to someone junior to them when things do not go well and they are at fault. Humility recognizes the strengths in others.

Humility is letting others be who they are. Letting others be who they are goes deeper than being open to new ideas.  A team or department is diverse by nature, and there is complexity in relationships that goes deeper than the things we see on the surface.  A humble leader still manages people by disciplining when necessary, and giving feedback on areas for growth. However, they also let people have their own unique strengths and voice.

Humility includes other’s ideas. Because of the reasons listed above, the ideas of others, and not just the person with formal authority, have the opportunity to rise to the top. And this is what makes leaders great. A group of people working with unity can accomplish great things, and when people’s voices matter and the best ideas have the opportunity to flourish the team performs. And often the leader gets the credit, but a good leader gives the credit right back to the team.

Sarah Marshall

Sarah Marshall

Sarah Marshall is the CEO of North Side Community Federal Credit Union, a small asset size CDFI credit union in Chicago, IL. At North Side, she has successfully launched new ... Web: www.northsidecu.org Details

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