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Inspire People to Follow: Practice Humility

Humble leaders are in charge, yet open to asking for help. They're human, but respected.
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Leaders who value humility are the ones other people want to follow.

This was a lesson I observed while listening to Denes Kemény, president and head coach of the Hungarian national water polo team, speak at a recent leadership conference in Budapest. Under Kemény's leadership, the national team has won three Olympic gold medals. Water polo, as I learned, is Hungary's claim to sports dominance and that makes Kemény a national icon, the equivalent of Duke basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski.

While Hungary is now a democracy and embraces free market economics, vestiges of autocracy remain prevalent in many organizations. The person at the top is the chief decision-maker; distributive decision-making is not the norm. And in this regard, Hungary is not unique. Such top down leadership is standard practice in most governmental organizations both abroad and here in the United States.

So when a leader who as revered as Kemény speaks, as he did, of the leader's need to be humble, listeners take notice. He talked movingly about his appointment as a manager of the team, but said he was not the team's leader until he had proven that he was worthy of being trusted and followed. Humility is integral to the development of that earned trust.

Humility, as I have said many times, is not something taught in business schools but it may be one of the most powerful attributes a leader can utilize. But leaders who do not readily accept it may not always be to blame.

What is important to understand is that very often leaders fear humility. I find this is especially true in autocracies where a leader is expected to "know it all and do it all." A leader who is not in total command of facts as well as the levers of power may be viewed as one not worthy of respect. So leaders who act with excessive bravado, even when in over their heads, are doing what is expected of them.

Sadly they view humility as a sign of weakness. They fail to understand that the humble leader is one who can open the door to improved levels of followership. Humility is integral to "Level 5" leadership, a term that Jim Collins uses in his seminal book, Good to Great, to describe those leaders who not only guide but inspire their organizations to achieve superior results.

Keep in mind, a humble leader is fully in charge. She doesn't back down from challenges or fear adversity. She is the one to whom others defer when tough decisions must be made. She is respected. What distinguishes her is perhaps a sense of openness. She is candid, and self-aware. That is, she knows what she can do, and what she can't. Humble leaders surround themselves with people who are encouraged to speak up, especially when they have alternative points of view. Humble leaders are so self-assured that they are willing to seek help when necessary as well as to step up to big challenges that arise.

When a leader expresses humility it opens the door for greater levels of understanding and productivity. "Do you wish to rise?" asked St. Augustine. "Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility."

Humble leaders are those that others not only want to follow but enjoy following because of strong leadership as well as strong humanity.

IMAGE: Shutterstock
Last updated: May 17, 2012

JOHN BALDONI | Columnist | President, Baldoni Consulting

John Baldoni is the president of Baldoni Consulting, an executive coaching firm. John speaks widely on leadership and has written 10 leadership books; his newest is Lead With Purpose: Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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