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Top Level Leadership: The Triumph of Humility Over Arrogance

How can a sometimes supremely confident leader also be humble?

This has been a very good two weeks, immersed in the study and discussion of leadership. Last week was the Peter Drucker Centennial Celebration, and many of the most renowned leadership thinkers were present. This week I am in Prague for the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association, and it too is occurring during another anniversary celebration: the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Last night a personal video made by President Vaclav Havel opened the ILA conference (he had an important meeting elsewhere, but made this video to discuss his thoughts on leadership). What I was struck most by was his humility. This soft-spoken former playwright, who played a key role in the Velvet Revolution, and who was the President of a vibrant, re-born nation, said, "I didn't really consider myself a leader." He went on to say that "others looked to me for direction," and he spoke of serving the cause rather than being "in charge."

Last week, Jim Collins mentioned the importance of humility for effective and authentic leadership. He contrasted leaders who display humility versus those who are arrogant and egotistical. I have to admit that when I first read Collins discussing the importance of humility for "Level 5" leaders, I thought perhaps this was merely an artifact. Research often contradicts this notion because successful leaders have extremely high levels of self-confidence and a sense of self-efficacy (being able to "move mountains"). So, it seemed to me a paradox. How can a sometimes supremely confident leader also be humble?

Yet I now get it. The successful leader's confidence is an outgrowth of the passion and commitment to the cause. The leader believes, like Havel, that change will happen through persistence, hard work, and knowing that you are doing the right thing (and that you are the person to help get it done). The cause becomes bigger than the leader, and the leader is serving the cause. When the cause is directed toward making things better for those you represent - whether it be the citizens of a nation, or the employees and customers of a business enterprise - the very best leaders are humbled by the magnitude of the responsibility. Sure they have big egos, most successful people do. But, they subordinate their egos to the importance of the cause.

Arrogant leaders, on the other hand, believe that they are greater than the cause [OK, I know I'm oversimplifying things, but the issue is about the place that followers play in the equation]. As followers, we are drawn to leaders who appear to be powerful and effective, but we should also seek out and support those leaders who have humility. Those who clearly recognize and convey that the cause is bigger than they are. We need to avoid those leaders who obviously are putting themselves, and their egos, before the cause [Believe me, I've also seen some of those types of leaders these past two weeks]. For ultimate success for an organization, a political movement, or a business, the extraordinary, but humble, leader, will always trump the arrogant one.

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