Leadership: Humility as Antidote to Arrogance

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A Guest Post By Helio Fred Garcia, President, Logos Consulting Group

Arrogance is a particularly toxic element of leadership. Not arrogance as a high opinion of one’s ability, but a particularly pernicious form of arrogance: a sense of entitlement; an inability to see others as worthy of respect and dignity; a failure of empathy.

We saw ample evidence of this kind of arrogance in the past year, in business, in entertainment, in politics, and in other walks of life.

And we began to see the consequences of arrogance in professional relationships, particularly the sexual entitlement of powerful men toward others in subordinate positions. Starting in October with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, we’ve witnessed the downfall of many prominent men in entertainment, politics, business and journalism for sexual misconduct. Time magazine put some of the women who came forward, whom it dubbed “The Silence Breakers” on its cover as 2017 person of the year.

Testosterosis

One of the common patterns of poor leadership and of mishandled crises is what crisis guru Jim Lukaszewski calls “testosterosis,” a condition that isn’t gender specific. He defines the affliction this way:

It’s that state of extraordinary irritation and agitation when something goes awry which makes us want to lash out rather than fess up; to slap a few folks around to see what happens; an agitated state caused by adverse circumstances which we regret about the time it begins, but is most often one of the things leaders, lawyers and other top people wind up apologizing for.”

But a little humility can prevent testosterosis.

The Need for Humility

Humility all too often is interpreted as weakness, especially in competitive cultures like Wall Street, politics, or the top of big organizations.

But a dollop of humility tempers other attributes, and makes a leader even stronger. Humility helps a leader to recognize that maybe – just maybe – he or she might be wrong; that there may be other valid perspectives; that he or she doesn’t have to be the smartest person in every room, at every meeting; that he or she doesn’t need to prevail in every disagreement.

We have seen testaments to humility from experts ranging from Good to Great author Jim Collins, who says that the best leaders possess a paradoxical combination of humility and fierce resolve, to emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, who identifies self-awareness as the preeminent leadership skill.

An Unlikely Pairing of Leaders

We can learn how this mix of resolve and humility works from an unlikely pairing of leaders: the Pope and the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

In a TED Talk last year Pope Francis noted that humility is not weakness; rather, it is a kind of fortitude:

“Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.”

The Pope used a simile to illustrate this:

“Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach. You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility. Through humility… power… becomes a service, a force for good.”

Now consider the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General Robert Neller. According to military.com, just before Christmas he was addressing troops in Afghanistan. He told of his time in 2006 as a one-star general commanding Marines in Iraq. He was feeling sorry for himself because he was away from his family at Christmas. He initially exhibited some testosterosis:

“It was was Camp Fallujah… Overnight they had put up all the Christmas stuff, and Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus, Rudolf, and little trees and lights, and I’m like, [shouting] Who did this? Why are you doing this? I don’t want to be here for Christmas. And this is reminding me that I’m here. Take it all down!”

That could have been it. He was the boss, a general, addressing subordinate staff, in a war zone. But what happened next is remarkable. General Neller recounts,

“And this female sergeant, name escapes me, maybe 5 foot 1, stands up and says, ‘General, you need to knock that sh*t off. I don’t want to listen to any of that whiny sh*t. We’re here, it’s Christmas, we’re your family, you’re not going to be home, so suck it up… Sir!’”

General Neller was taken aback.  He stood silently:

“And I kind of stood there [pause]… didn’t quite know what to say [pause]…  looked at my boots [pause]… and I raised my head and said, ‘Yes, Ma’am, you are correct. I am sorry. This is my family for Christmas. And I will do my very best to have as good a Christmas as I can.’”

This expression of humility, this acknowledgement of his initial failure, this apology and acknowledgment of the rightness of the sergeant’s admonition, is an extraordinary demonstration of leadership. It is also remarkable that despite the disparity of rank and power the sergeant felt empowered to address him directly. General Neller had created an environment in which accountability in the form of such push-back was appropriate.

Humility Enables Empathy

Humility is what makes empathy possible.

Humility helps leaders to connect with others up, down, and across the chain of command; to build organizations and cultures that are more likely to thrive; to understand the perspectives of others.

The best leaders have a temperament that blends both power and humility, that allows them to create a culture of accountability in all directions.

Helio Fred Garcia President Logos Consulting GroupFor more than 35 years, Helio Fred Garcia has helped leaders build trust, inspire loyalty, and lead effectively. He is a coach, counselor, teacher, writer, and speaker whose clients include some of the largest and best-known companies and organizations in the world. He is the author, most recently, of The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis, Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press, 2017. Fred is president of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group and executive director of the Logos Institute for Crisis Management & Executive Leadership. 

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