The strength of humility

Stan D. Soderstrom | Feb 17, 2020

Stan Soderstrom speaking at a Kiwanis International convention. “Leader” is a striking word. For many people, it evokes thoughts of power and personal accomplishment. It’s like an image of someone standing on a mountaintop, looking out over conquered territory — or the territory they’re about to conquer.

But it’s important to remember the leadership qualities that don’t always evoke such self-regard. One of my favorites is humility. I would even go so far as to say it’s the most common characteristic among the effective leaders I’ve known.  

It’s worth thinking about why — and why it’s such a misunderstood strength.

Some people perceive humility as an indication of weakness. For one thing, it doesn’t always seem like a good match with the society around us. In a world of selfies, social media and other forms of “self-expression” (and instant gratification), the very concept of downplaying your own standing for the greater good seems out of step.   

But leaders lead. Knowing what’s happening in the world around you is a good thing, but it’s not the same thing as conforming to every aspect of it. Humility, rather than self-promotion, helps leaders keep an eye on their actual purpose: the success of the team.

Whether you’re leading a small crew or a large organization (or anything in between), the point of your work is to get the best from the members — both individually and as a group. Lose sight of that fact and you’ll simply “lead” everyone collectively to a substandard result. And that only circles around to a verdict on your leadership that you wouldn’t want to promote anyway.

In fact, the testimony of the people you work with is as powerful as anything you could say about yourself. What would your colleagues say about your leadership? My guess: it depends both on the overall success of a given project and how rewarding it was for each person to complete it.

After all, to be humble isn’t to downplay success or pretend that achievements don’t exist. It means acknowledging that various people contributed — and sharing the credit with them. It means collaboration rather than coercion. And it means honoring people when possible.

The results you get and the reactions you inspire are not separate matters. Positive results and positive feelings are not coincidental. But it’s not a sign of “softness” in a leader either. Ultimately, it’s a matter of respect. And respect is an outcome of good leadership.  

Do the demands of a team’s work — and the high expectations you have for each member — lead to results that everyone’s proud of? Is it an experience that each person finds fulfilling? Does each team member feel truly appreciated?  

If the answers are “yes,” each of those people is also highly likely to think well of the person who led them. Because they recognize your humility not as weakness but its own kind of strength. It’s a form of confidence that doesn’t feel threatened by widespread responsibility and credit. It’s the kind of leadership that requires great discipline and foresight — and seems all the more impressive when it’s skillfully deployed.

Stan D. Soderstrom is the executive director of Kiwanis International and the Kiwanis Children’s Fund. His background includes global and community-based work in the public and private sectors. 


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