Consider this Key Attribute of All Great Leaders - Humility

Consider this Key Attribute of All Great Leaders

Woman leader with humility helping coworker

I’ve had several humbling experiences throughout my life that have changed the course of where I was headed.  I can think of many examples both in my mountaineering adventures and in the unexpected circumstances presented to me throughout my career where I found myself unsure and seemingly unprepared. 

One such event happened on a fateful day on the Trading Floor at Bloomberg in New York 25 years ago. A colleague was heard screaming from the top of his lungs across the floor, “Anyone here speak Spanish? The Central bank of Mexico is on the line. I don’t understand this guy, but it sounds like he wants to buy with Bloomberg.  With 120 professionals on the floor, all of them college-educated, not one raised their hand. My boss ran over to me and said, “Your last name is Garcia. Don’t you speak Spanish?” Nope. Born and bred in America. I had three years in high school and haven’t uttered a word in 10 years. Which prompted him to say, “That’s more than anyone else around here. Pick up line one.  Congratulations Chuck, you’re now in charge of Latin American Sales. Oh, and Good luck.”

I bumbled my way embarrassingly through that call, understood just enough to send the guy a brochure.  I swore I would never be in such a position ever again. I remember thinking this is what it must feel like to get a battlefield promotion. I was the only man left standing.  I was immediately an Army of ONE – in charge of a continent that stretched as far south as Argentina and Chile. I was not only unprepared for this, I was unqualified. Humbled, I sought out to do what was necessary to rise to the expectation.  I subsequently hired a tutor, obsessively worked on Spanish for months until I took my first trip south of the border. The rest was history – we did great and I capitalized on an amazing opportunity. 

In this situation, I was humbled by circumstances that led me to experience success based on hard work and a willingness to seize an opportunity placed before me.  But being humbled and being humble are very different when it comes to our ability to effectively lead others.  I have witnessed this act of true humility by leaders I admire. 

I will never forget the opportunity I had to reach the top of Europe’s Mount Elbrus which towers above that continent at about 18,510 feet. We took about eight or nine days to get to this summit.  After we made the summit and we all had the chance to experience the elation of the moment, we started our descent. I was 1,000 vertical feet below the summit heading down when the unexpected happened.

I was disconnected from my team as we all had felt at the time it wouldn’t be necessary for us to be attached as we headed down. Little did I know, there was an exposed rock that my crampon stepped on.  As I hit that exposed rock, I slipped and fell down the mountain – fast. When you fall down a mountain at a rapid rate, you do what you call a “self-arrest” which involved throwing your ice axe and both feet (with crampons) into the ice to stop yourself from going any further.  It was scary. I wasn’t expecting it and couldn’t believe that was the situation I was in. But what happened next is what I will always remember.

My mountain guide, Mark, yelled down to make sure I was ok and proceeded to come to me and secure me to him and the rest of the climbers above.  Thinking he would want to hustle up and get out of the situation, Mark surprised me. He looked me in the eye after making sure we were stable and safe, and said, “Hold on…look at that sun. Look around and be grateful that you’re safe, that I’m safe, that the team is safe and waiting for you.  Let’s just take this moment to reflect on the amazing experience we’re having.”

This was a phenomenal mountaineer, tremendously proficient technically in ways I couldn’t imagine.  In that moment, he helped me to look differently at the definition of a great mountaineer. It was one of those experiences where what I was feeling had nothing to do with technical ability.  It had everything to do with the reaction to the unexpected. The kindness and generosity that he showed put me at ease, calmed me down. He showed me the true defining quality of a great leader: humility. 

Real Confidence Yields Humility 

In an article written by Clayton M. Christensen for the Harvard Business Review entitled, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” he speaks in great deal about the impact we can have on ourselves and in the lives of others and how we can ultimately how our efforts will be measured.  As high achievers, we can often lose sight of what is most important in both our personal and professional lives because we are so attuned to seeking actions that yield immediate results. As parents, spouses, friends, coworkers and leaders however, this can be limiting. He spoke to the need for anchoring ourselves in the real priorities in life and making sure we are constantly focused on that. When we do this, we’ll naturally have greater focus and confidence in what we are doing. 

Christensen speaks to what this kind of confidence can bring – one of the greatest characteristics of true leadership: humility. “I got this insight when I was asked to teach a class on humility at Harvard College.  I asked all the students to describe the most humble person they knew. One characteristic of these humble people stood out: They had a high level of self-esteem. They knew who they were, and they felt good about who they were.  We also decided that humility was defined not by self-deprecating behavior or attitude but by the esteem with which you regard others. Good behavior flows naturally from that kind of humility. For example, you would never steal from someone, because you respect that person too much.  You’d never lie to someone, either…Generally, you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself—and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves too.”

This is at the core of true leadership and found in those who have high levels of emotional intelligence.  When we ultimately understand that success in life, both professionally and personally, has more to do with our interactions with others than it does about just ourselves, we make a real impact.  As Christensen concluded in his article, “Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”

Making the Decision to Be Aware

Of course, being humble and focusing on others is not always our natural tendency.  From the beginning of time, we’ve been wired to survive. These natural inclinations aren’t wrong, looking out for ourselves keeps us alive.  However, long gone are the days of primeval survival – instead, true success and “survival” has always been and will continue to be about our collaboration with those around us.  It requires a deliberate decision on our part to look beyond ourselves and be invested in the success of those around us. It requires work and an acknowledgment that it is indeed important. 

In an excerpt from Fast Company contributor, David J. Bobb, he speaks to the natural tendencies George Washington needed to overcome in order to become the great leader we all know him to be. “An expert social climber and adept self-promoter, Washington displayed an early rashness on the battlefield that helped ignite a global conflagration. As he discovered, it is one thing to want to change one’s lot in life; it is another to be so eager to do so that the means of self-improvement do not matter. Greatness at any price is not real greatness. In Washington’s early haste to achieve greatness, he sometimes let his ambition outpace his virtue. He gradually realized this, and he calibrated his actions accordingly. Rather than just cloaking his ambition, only to exert absolute rule when given the chance, Washington recognized that the more he served others and the cause of justice, the more his success would matter. The less his ambition was about his own fame, the more he would deserve the honors he received. Virtue in this sense, he discovered, can be its own reward.”

Those who find themselves faced with leadership opportunities are ambitious, intelligent, and skilled.  However, those who truly lead others understand the need to focus outside of themselves. Christensen’s experience teaching highly ambitious business students at Harvard College about humility seems similar to my own experience teaching highly technical engineers at Columbia University the need for emotional intelligence in their careers.  My course’s purpose has been to help these students understand the importance of being in tune with ourselves and those around us. These students are incredibly smart, and they know it. However, being proficient engineers will only contribute to society so much and Columbia knows this – they recognize the need for this kind of education not traditionally offered in disciplines such as engineering.  

The goal is to not only produce the best engineers in the industry but leaders who will be at the forefront of change.  To achieve this, Columbia has created a Professional Development and Leadership (PDL) program for their School of Engineering and Applied Sciences which, “empowers and educates Columbia engineers to maximize performance and achieve their full potential to become engineering leaders of today and tomorrow. PDL’s core modules provide engineers with the skills and perspectives needed to succeed in a fast-changing technical climate. The program consists of an array of engagements, online and in-person (i.e. courses, workshops, labs, competitions), where students develop professionally.”

If you find yourself in a management position – no matter your industry – intelligence and skill will undoubtedly be important; however, your treatment of those around you will ultimately make or break you.  Business is built on relationships to get specific goals accomplished. These relationships must be taken care of to achieve optimal performance – which requires making people, and their feelings, a priority.  To make others a priority requires humility. 

Marcel Schwantes, Founder and Chief Human Officer of Leadership From the Core wrote an article for Inc. that speaks to this very thing.  In it he opens, “In my assessment of the healthiest work cultures, I’ve noticed a trend that can no longer be denied. Leaders in such organizations put the needs of others first, shine the spotlight on their employees, and through it all, the organizations they serve gain incredible strength and power. More specifically, what you’ll find in these “Best Workplaces” is a high commitment to growing and developing their employees.”

Become a leader that inspires.  See what audiences across the country are experiencing and book Chuck to speak at your next workshop or conference; learn more.


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