Mr. Abraham Lincoln is undoubtedly one of the most beloved presidents in the history of the United States. His leadership throughout the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation are but a few of the reasons. However, many who have learned about him and his rise to the nation’s top office know that it was not due to pride or an over-estimation of his abilities. Instead, he was a man rooted in humility, inclusive in his decision-making, and keenly aware of his shortcomings.
The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln by Ida M. Tarbell illustrates this very point in the retelling of Lincoln’s experience of becoming a political candidate for the first time. Despite being self-educated, not well-read, or proficient in public speaking, he quickly became popular in his community of New Salem at a fairly young age. Neighbors and community members suggested he announce himself as a candidate for the General Assembly of the State of Illinois based on his interest and passion in issues facing the community at the time.
It was not lost on him that many would be skeptical of his desire to run. He fully embraced that reality and in his closing paragraph of his announcement stated,
…But, fellow citizens, I shall conclude. Considering the great degree of modesty which should always attend youth, it is probable I have already been more presuming than becomes me. However, upon the subjects of which I have treated, I have spoken as I have thought. I may be wrong in regard to any or all of them, but, holding it a sound maxim that it is better only sometimes to be right than at all times to be wrong, so soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to announce them.
Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it is true or not, I can say for one, that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow-men by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed. I am young, and unknown to many of you. I was born, and have ever remained, in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations or friends to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of the county; and, if elected, they will have conferred a favor upon me for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate. But, if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.
Your friend and fellow-citizen,
Lincoln’s humility was a key aspect of what made him so respected and successful in his career as a leader. A past Forbes article explored why this kind of humility is so important in leadership. “Humble leaders understand that they are not the smartest person in every room. Nor do they need to be. They encourage people to speak up, respect differences of opinion and champion the best ideas, regardless of whether they originate from a top executive or a production-line employee…When things go wrong, humble leaders admit to their mistakes and take responsibility. When things go right, they shine the spotlight on others.”
Humility is a Sign of Strength, Not Weakness
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 addresses 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.”
Those who find themselves with leadership opportunities are often 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 is not unlike my own experience teaching highly technical engineers at Columbia University the need for emotional intelligence in their careers.
In those courses the following point is driven home: intelligence and skill will undoubtedly be important; however, your treatment of those around you will ultimately make or break you in your life and career. 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.
Become a humble leader who inspires. See what audiences across the country are experiencing and book Chuck to speak at your next workshop or conference – learn more.