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Can Leaders Avoid Drowning in a Sea of Arrogance?

A contributor to Forbes.com began an article not long ago by suggesting that humility isn’t “cited or celebrated much in leaders.” A few months later, another Forbes.com contributor wrote that those in charge of hiring leaders often “overlook” the trait of humility.

Both might be correct. But that type of language might lead you to conclude that there’s a lack of emphasis on the importance of humility in leadership. There’s not. In fact, many popular books on leadership talk about the value of humility, and the blogosphere is full of articles that tell you that the best leaders exemplify humility.

What’s missing in leadership isn’t an emphasis on humility, it’s the execution of humility.

Here’s how a headline on HBR.com summed up the problem: “If Humility Is So Important, Why Are Leaders So Arrogant?”

My answer to that: Because we can’t help ourselves.

It feels good to accomplish things and to get credit for our contributions in life, but we naturally over-indulge and eventually pay a price. And while humility is vital to great leadership, it’s elusive because we’re often among the last to realize that we’re drowning in an ocean of our own arrogance. We don’t intentionally swim into this ocean. We don’t wake up with “Become a narcissist” on our to-do list. Instead, we wade in a little at a time, only to look up later and realize we no longer can even see the shore.

Here’s one example of how we find ourselves lost at sea. We do a great job with a project and 10 people tell us how wonderful we are. We react humbly to the first two or three people, giving credit to the team that helped and maybe talking about God’s providential contribution. As the accolades continue, however, we respond more briefly and direct less credit elsewhere. By the ninth or 10th time, all we say is, “Thanks,” as if we did it all. The next time we score a win at work, it only takes five atta-boys or atta-girls for us to take all the credit. Pretty soon, we forget that anyone or anything else played any role at all.

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So how do we safeguard our ego from drowning in pride? I’ve given this a good bit of thought, because humility is one of my 3H-Core values (along with honesty and heart). That doesn’t mean I’ve perfected it. Far from it. But here are a few best practices that I’ve found helpful when I’ve been consistent in executing on them:

Surrender ownership

Take responsibility for your actions and accept credit where credit is due, but give up the idea that you own your good works. Each breath is a gift and not one that’s promised. Our talents are a responsibility, something we’ve been given to develop for the benefit of others, not something we had a hand in creating. Consider yourself a brush in the hands of a master artist. You might put the paint on the canvas, but it’s the artist who owns the results and deserves the ultimate credit.

Practice gratitude

Start and end each day by giving thanks for the things and the people who enrich your life. Before each meeting, think about the other participants and give thanks for at least one way each of them adds value to your work and your organization. Celebrating others, privately as well as publicly, promotes a selfless mindset that has no room for arrogance.

Learn from others

I’ve found that I’m quicker to celebrate others when I respect them as people and look for opportunities to learn from them. Peter Drucker once advised leaders to “discover where your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance and overcome it.” When we think we’re too good to learn from others, we limit our leadership potential and effectiveness by willfully living in ignorance.

Celebrating others, privately as well as publicly, promotes a selfless mindset that has no room for arrogance.

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Submit to accountability

Has anyone ever told you that you’re prideful? Probably not. But we all need a few people who will tell us when we’re acting, even just a little, in prideful ways. Spouses often fill this role, but I’ve found it also helps to have a few close friends you meet with regularly who have permission to call you out when needed. Who tells you when your head has outgrown your hat size?

As leaders, we tend to hear a disproportionate amount of praise. And we naturally buy into the idea that we’ve earned that praise and deserve it. After all, we have the title and the nice office and all the other perks that serve as proof of our greatness. We don’t see ourselves as arrogant, just self-confident. That can become a dangerous lie, and we have to fight against it every day. Otherwise, we’re destined to drown and likely to take everyone around us to the bottom.


    1. Walt Rakowich

      Thank you, David. Great to have you here, and thrilled to know that my weekly musings are proving useful to you and your team.

      Reply to Walt Rakowich

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