The Balancing Act of Humble Leadership

Man performing a balancing act on narrow rock against sunset
Leadership is a balancing act. 

Humility is a tricky concept. Though welcome and disarming, it’s difficult to measure and even harder to convey—especially when you’re asked to lead. Why? Because teams often expect leaders to have all the right answers. In turn, we feel compelled to say something rather than nothing, when in reality, consulting the collective intelligence of our colleagues and fostering interdependence yields greater outcomes.

I’ve thought a lot about humility. It’s a quality I personally strive for and a behavior I value in others, which is why I was struck by a simple yet powerful explanation that I recently read: “Humility refers to taking up just the right amount of space—not too little and not too much.” This insightful phrase has ancient ties to the Mussar tradition which focuses on a discipline of leading a meaningful and ethical life. Naturally, your question might be, “What is the right amount of personal space?”

Author Alan Morinis talks about the importance of looking at humility on a continuum. At one end is someone with very little humility or an abundance of arrogance while the other end is an individual with too much humility or meekness. Morinis suggests that we can seek a balance between the two extremes by evaluating your thoughts, feelings, and actions. For example:

  • Do you often think about scenarios in your life from your own perspective or can you stand in others’ shoes?
  • Do you have feelings of inferiority or overconfidence about those around you?
  • Do you find yourself wishing you’d stayed silent on an issue afterward or didn’t express your wishes when you wanted to?

Simply being conscious of these two extremes and opportunities to calibrate your perceptions and actions is a good exercise in humility. And recognizing you have room to make adjustments in your life is, after all, a humble act. In a recent blog post, I reflected on my humbling experiences related to being back in the classroom for my MBA years ago. The classroom was prime example of a situation where taking up the right amount of space meant there was more to gain.

Occupying too much space would have meant dominating the classroom conversation, which would have prevented the chance to learn from others. Taking too little space could have meant never raising my hand and contributing to the discussion. In today’s workplace, the boardroom or meeting room is no different. As a leader, consider the amount of airtime you occupy. Is there a balance between you and the others at the table? If not, you may be missing out on valuable input.

I look forward to talking more about humility with you in the new year when I’ll begin to share some excerpts of my forthcoming book. Together, we’ll explore how humility is an essential quality in the midst of today’s workplace challenges. In the meantime, I encourage you to use this time of year for reflection on your leadership habits and make a commitment to finding the right balance.

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