Leadership Essentials – Humility vs Pride

“Pride is your greatest enemy, humility is your greatest friend.” said the late John R.W. Stott.

In many of my coaching conversations these last few weeks I have become increasingly aware of the dangers of pride. In turn, I have spent some time reflecting on my own situation and simply invite you to do likewise.

Today, I want to sound a warning voice. Simply stated……..beware of pridewe must be alert and we must be on guard against the perils of pride. I’m not talking about the glow of pride you feel as your daughter receives an award, or upon graduating from University. Rather, this form of pride is much more insidious, crafty, cunning and sneaks up on you, creating a lofty and arrogant assumption that you are somehow superior in some or indeed many respects, before you realise it is even happening.

“There is one vice of which no man in the world is free,” C.S Lewis remarked, “which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people….ever imagine that they are guilty of themselves…”

Try this little self test.

  • Are you critical of others?
  • Do you look down on others? Do you scorn or ridicule them?
  • Do you find yourself critiquing many things your boss or colleagues share, thinking you can do much better?
  • When you do something good, do you hear a little a voice inside congratulating yourself?
  • If someone corrects a mistake you made, do you feel defensive and resentful?
  • Do you find ways to let others know of your success without appearing to boast?
  • If someone you know receives something good, do you hear a voice inside saying, “What about me?”
  • When someone does something that creates inconvenience for you, do you feel annoyed.

These points were all adapted from an article by Kim B. Clark, but I’d like to echo his sentiments and sadly confess that I have first-hand experience of the questions asked and could go on. A heartfelt sincere asking yourself these questions, is like peeling back the layers of an onion, there just seems to be more and more.

Lifetime observations help me to conclude that positions of authority, leadership and power can lead to pride and unrighteous dominion. Economic prosperity can somehow and oftentimes does lead to pride. Pride is all about selfishness, looking inwards and thinking – its all about me. Somehow, it is much easier to see pride in others, than it is to see it in yourself. Proud people are pretty resistant and everyone else is the problem. Looking at the news from around the world these last few years it is brutally evident to see examples of the dangers of pride in some of the political and business leaders on the world stage. In addition, pride and arrogance are obvious in many of todays political leaders, whether liberal or conservative, making matters much worse than they need to be. In my opinion, pride is very, very dangerous and can produce widespread suffering in society when people in leadership and power are corrupted by it.  Further, there is an overarching culture in society today that simply states…. “its all about me”. Sadly, I’m sure many will recognise that malaise. Pride’s family of behaviours includes conceit, self-righteousness, boasting, selfish ambition, showing off, vanity, and impatience.   Thankfully however there is a powerful antidote…..All of these can be replaced by cultivating humility.

Humility. These day I guess it’s an unfashionable word. The dictionary defines humility as “modesty” and “lacking in pretense”, but that doesn’t mean humble leaders are meek or timid.

Ezra Taft Benson shared “Humility does not mean weakness. It does not mean timidity. It does not mean fear. A man can be humble and fearless. A man can be humble and courageous.” I also love this anonymous quote that states: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking about yourself less”. Humility is selfless not selfish. In fact I believe that humility is being authentic without any pretence or arrogance. It is really about being true to yourself and knowing your limitations, from the inside out.

In Harry M. Jansen Kraemar’s book “From Values to Action” he dedicates a whole chapter (4) to genuine humility as one of the principles for values based leaders. He states “you recognise the value in everyone; you know you are no better than anyone else; and the higher you move up the organisation, the more you stay grounded.”

In a Harvard Business Review article from a few year ago, it states that “The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders” https://hbr.org/2014/05/the-best-leaders-are-humble-leaders

In addition to the four suggestions made in the HBR articles I’d like to ask further – how do we cultivate humility?  In our own consultancy, the first of our strapline words is Reflect. As I have written about previously, I am an avid journal writer. By chronicling in my journals what goes well and what could have gone better enables me to learn from my actions. Over many years of doing this I’ve discovered that there is always room for improvement.

I have been fortunate to work with many humble leaders over many years. It has been my experience that humility inspires loyalty, it also helps to build and sustain cohesive, productive teamwork. Jim Collins was a fan of CEOs he saw demonstrating modesty and leading quietly, not charismatically, in his bestseller Good to Great. He called these CEOs Level 5 executives.

Collins found Level 5 executives built enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They channelled their egos away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. At a deeper level, he found that for leaders to make something great, their ambition had to be for the greatness of the work and the company, rather than for themselves.

Humility, like other virtues, can be developed. We can actually become more humble if we focus on appreciating the strengths of others and serving them, on being teachable and admitting our mistakes. We need…… no, we must continue to share this message in our homes, communities and business organisations to better prepare those who lead now and in the future.

Final Points to Ponder….

  1. What are some ways I could recognise pride in my speech, my attitudes and my actions?
  2. As outlined, humility is the antidote of pride. How can I develop humility?