A Grindstone-SHARPENed leader is…Humble.


Have you ever heard of an affliction called Potomac Fever?

This malady, which often presents in political appointees working in Washington, D.C., first came to my attention when I myself was an appointee of President George W. Bush about 15 years ago. According to the president’s archived website, “symptoms include: extreme disorientation, memory loss, and occasional delusions of grandeur.”

A view of Washington, D.C. overlooking the Potomac River’s Tidal Basin, March 3, 2008 (Michael D. Dovilla)

As I recall, one recommended antidote, even for those serving in roles as senior as Senate-confirmed Cabinet posts, was to fly to any city in the middle of the United States, walk through the airport, and realize that not a soul knew who they were. This, of course, stood in marked contrast to daily seeing one’s picture prominently displayed next to the president’s in the corridors of their department or being instantly recognized in a restaurant in the Nation’s Capital.

The fact that the White House Office of Presidential Personnel found it necessary to offer this lighthearted correction to those whose heads became a bit too inflated by their temporary positions of public trust offers a cautionary tale about the intoxication of authority. As Lord Acton famously observed, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

You would correctly surmise, dear reader, that this infirmity does not just impact those serving in the public sector but can happen to just about anyone in a leadership position that allows their ego to run rampant. Each of us has most likely had the misfortune of working with or for someone like this during our careers, or perhaps even in a volunteer setting. It is rarely a pleasant experience.

At a time when significant elements of society once again seem to be enamored of celebrity and brash, even narcissistic, leadership, this may be a good time to examine the virtues of humility.

There is certainly nothing wrong with healthy, well-balanced ambition. It can drive innovation, facilitate progress, and stimulate growth and improvement. As a leader, the key question to ask oneself in pursuing these prospective advantages is:

Am I doing this to benefit myself or our organization and its people?

Jim Collins, in his seminal work, Good to Great, presents compelling – although initially counterintuitive – research on “the type of leadership required for turning a good company into a great one.” Collins’ “Level 5 Executive” (atop a pyramid with four lower levels: highly capable individual; contributing team member; competent manager; and effective leader) “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” He cites as examples of level 5 leadership individuals like Lincoln and Socrates, rather than Patton or Caesar. (Incidentally, happy birthday, Abe. Spot on timing with the appearance here today.)

President Abraham Lincoln, Feb. 5, 1865 (AP Photo/Library of Congress/Alexander Gardner)

So, what steps can we take to evaluate our own humility – and, if it is lacking, to develop this essential leadership quality? Here are three thoughts:

1.  Take your work – but not yourself – seriously.

“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” —Dr. Albert Einstein

Too often, we see leaders – even those who enter their positions with the best of intentions – that let the big corner office and other benefits go to their heads. They start to believe their own press and acquire a false sense of self-importance. This is simply not an indulgence any leader can afford. Being chosen for a leadership role is a special opportunity to serve others and advance the good of the company, organization, or institution through hard work. Accept such positions with the attitude of a temporary steward, whose responsibility it is to take what has been given and, at the appropriate time, turn it over to your successor in better condition than you found it.

A humble leader adds value to the organization.

2.  Exhibit empathy.

“Let each of you look not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” —Saint Paul, Phil. 2:4

A common misconception about leaders is that they must be tough disciplinarians or authoritarian figures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Humble leadership means applying the strength we rightly expect in a leader to the good of the order and its people, not abusing them. When is the last time a leader in your company – or, perhaps youare that leader – walked the floors and asked members of the team how their work is going, how their families are doing, and whether they need anything? These acts of outreach are not just “nice to haves” or exhibitions of behavior we read about in management books. They are essential elements of genuine leadership. The best leaders possess a real and abiding interest in people, seek to place themselves in others’ shoes, and pour themselves into their lives as mentors. As retired Marine Gen. James Mattis observed, “everyone needs a coach, but nobody needs a tyrant.”

A humble leader cares for those who comprise the organization.

3.  Practice servant leadership.

“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Being entrusted with a leadership position comes with an implied obligation to serve others, not to be served. Whether we apply the example of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, Medal of Honor recipients engaging in valorous actions that have cost them their lives, or any number of small, daily acts of kindness, human beings inherently understand that the most noble type of leadership is one in which we selflessly serve others – even at the cost of ourselves. This is not to recommend a leadership style featuring a perverse altruism rooted in low self-esteem (a good way to get steamrolled), but one that pairs quiet strength and disciplined will with authentic humility focused on serving others’ needs before our own.

Simply put, a humble leader loves others.

Today’s post is the second of a seven-part series on the characteristics of a Grindstone-SHARPENed leader. You can locate other Our Weekly Grind posts here. If you find our content compelling, edifying, or stimulating (or perhaps all three!), please sign up for our email list, which includes access to Saturday Sharpening, a free, weekly compendium of curated leadership links offered exclusively to subscribers.


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