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The Secret of All Great Leaders

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

How You Can Apply It to Rocket Your Leadership Outcomes

What do Kofi Annan, Angela Merkel, Nelson Mandela, Frances Hesselbein, Mother Theresa, and Mahatma Gandhi have in common?


Yeah, I said it!

The very quality that culture tells you will get you eaten for lunch if you show it as a leader, happens to be the quality to keep you eating many lunches, and enlarging your table for others to join you, for a long time to come.

I probably lost at least 20% of the leaders reading this email just by writing that. Why? Because you probably tried "humility" before and had people walk all over you.

Just last week I read a post that said, "Showing your emotions in front of people is like bleeding around a shark." And I "Liked it". I have no idea why I clicked the "Like" button (maybe it has something to do with the fact that I had been shark food for a long time until I truly understood what humility meant).

"Humility is a modest view of one's own importance.”

-Oxford Dictionary.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, rather it is thinking of yourself less, so that you can think and elevate others as just as, if not more important to achieve your common goals.

The opposite of humility is pride (conceit, ego).

The greatest challenge and opportunity of your leadership influence lies is in taming your ego. Master your ego and there is no height that you won’t climb.

Six years ago, I wrote about the ten things I have learned from global leaders. Humility was way up there. Why? Whereas “beating the competition to the No. 1 spot” may have been your life’s focus from Kindergarten to College, “being a strong collaborator” is the key to your leadership success. At the level of senior leadership, people don’t place as great a premium on your knowledge and skills (this is a given, how else would you have climbed so high if you were not a performer?). They know that you have a team of experts, many of them more knowledgeable than you, that can bring you up to speed on any issue. In senior leadership, what distinguishes your leadership influence is how effectively you can work vertically, horizontally, and across domains, to bring the best out of individuals and groups to achieve common objectives. That takes humility - "a modest view of your importance". This is because no matter how important you are, which I am sure is very important, if you are the head honcho, or one of the leaders of the pack, without your pack, you can only do so much, be at so many places, manage so many responsibilities before you drop a few balls, or completely lose your marbles.

But what does humility look like in a culture that tells you to establish your dominance, or else? First of all, as a leader, you need to lay to rest the lie that being humble means being a pushover. It does not. Being humble does not mean signing up to be the office washrag. Being humble is being mission-focused; that is, being conscious that, as a leader, you need to govern yourself, and influence others so that you can work together to deliver desired outcomes on target, without having to sacrifice people in the process. Therefore, being humble means you have a healthy estimation of not only your value and importance but also that of everyone else that surrounds you.

What does that look like in practice? 1. Telling the Truth About Limitations I once consulted for the Managing Director of one of the markets under a Pan African Bank. He told me that he regularly had the entire Bank meet to discuss the Bank's performance. The Bank wasn't doing so well, and he didn't hide it. He told everyone everything. Then, he told them about the Management Team's plan to turn things around, asking for their wholehearted commitment and cooperation to make their vision a reality. Humility looks like telling the truth about limitations, yours, or the organization's. It acknowledges that you need help, and it recognizes that you are surrounded by people that can help. 2. Welcoming Criticism "That's your opinion" and "Tell me more" are responses to criticism that I have heard two different leaders give. The first was defensive, and unwilling to entertain the thought that someone could find fault in someone as perfect as they were, and the second, was a humble and secure leader that understood that no matter what, or how the criticism came, they were open to listening, because only in doing so, would they understand where the other person was coming from, and be able to work the exchange into a resolution that would move things forward, whatever that looked like.

3. Resist the Urge to Be the Smartest in the Room

You don't have to weigh in on everything. Let conversations flow, solutions emerge, and work progress. Great leaders know that they are surrounded by capable people and defer to their expertise. Even when others could do better, by "growing" people, a term I read in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, you will make the challenges people face seem smaller, and more manageable.

The more people are able to look to their abilities, and those of the other brilliant minds around them, to get the resources they need to find solutions, the less you have to do as a leader. As you connect with them after the fact, you can then coach them through questions to improve their ideas and solutions. The more you help them feel smart, the more they can achiever, and will appreciate you, and welcome your valuable input when the situation does warrant you sharing your "two cents".

4. Ignore Insults

Ever heard a rumour, or felt a "vibe" from someone and had the urge to "address the matter"? Don't.

Humble yourself to not have FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) by seeking out people to know what is going on and wanting to explain yourself.

"Don’t pay attention to everything people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you"

-Ecclesiastes 7:21

That is a legit scripture. I was shocked when I first read it, but I totally agree with it.

Engage in, and only entertain exchanges that are mission-critical. What "he" or "she" said is none of your business. Unless it is breaching code, in which case you will need to address it through formal channels (and invite any grieved parties to do the same), ignore insults, stop gossip, and overlook personal affrontment.

Take the high road, weigh the need to address "issues", and keep leading your troops to the finish line.

"You will never reach your destination if you stop to throw stones at every dog that barks.

-Winston Churchill.

5. Ask For & Accept Help

Do you know what superheroes look like these days? They look like mothers juggling work-life roles and responsibilities; they look like men, battling addictions and insecurities, yet still stepping up to the plate.

We are in an era of "normalizing" a lot of things, some beneficial, some absolutely sinful. One of the things you can embrace and "normalize", is asking for help. Asking for help is a "superpower" in humility. Put to rest the notion that when people see your humanity, they will take advantage of it, instead, embrace the truth that when people see that you too are human, you will actually inspire them to step up even more just as they are.

"When we disclose our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses, people don't like us less. They actually like us more."

-Daniel Pink.

Let Go & Let God

Lisa Turkeust said,

"Don't let people's compliments go to your head, and their criticisms go to your heart. The degree to which you do either of these two things is the degree to which you will be ruled by what people think of you."

As a leader, you need to have a soft heart and a thick skin. Your heart is wired to see offense, take offense, and harden itself against people. But as a leader, you need to have a soft heart so that you can be humble and empathetic (the number one leadership quality in 2022 according to Forbes research), and thick skin so that you can let things slide like water off a duck's back.

Even if you are the head of your department, organization, country, or continent, there is a God in heaven. And if you lead with integrity and with humility, He will have the last say on your leadership legacy, regardless of how much others may try to sabotage it.

Do what the G.O.A.T.S. (Greatest of All Time) leaders do; stay humble, keep your power under control, and steer your ship and your people to your desired destination.

This is what brought you together.

"Lead in the Seat You're In" Carla Harris Carla Harris reminds us that leadership has nothing to do with titles. Lead from the seat you're in; whether that is top-down, bottom-up, horizontally, or any other leadership scenario. Humble yourself to acknowledge that every person is mission-critical and that the greatest expectation of your leadership, is to collaborate effectively to facilitate everyone's optimal contribution. This doesn't mean that you become a door mat; rather, it means acknowledging that you must crucify your ego so that you can become a facilitator of, and not a hindrance to, individual contribution, team cohesion, and organizational, industry, national, regional, or even global results. PS/Humbling yourself starts with you, after all, you are the leader, right?

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