WHEN DAVID NEELEMAN
was fired from Southwest Airlines, he lost what he thought was a “dream
job.” The person who had the unpleasant task of asking him to leave was
Ann Rhoades. When Neeleman started his own airline a few years later,
he hired two of his colleagues from Southwest: John Owen as CFO and you
guessed it, Rhoades as head of HR. Rhoades told Fast Company, “David didn’t understand the nuance of the organization. He needed to walk, not run.”
Today Neeleman runs what might be considered the world’s “coolest”
airline, Jet Blue. He may not be walking, but he is certainly more
humble. Humble enough to understand that if he wanted to grow his new
enterprise, he could learn from those who had once been his colleagues.
Humility just might be one of the most overlooked attributes in
leadership, but it just might be one of the most important attributes a
leader can possess. Humility is a strand between leader and follower
that underscores one common element: our humanity.
Humility is Humanness
Humility is not taught in management courses or many leadership
courses, for that matter. And you can understand why. Organizations
want their leaders to be visionary, authoritative, capable and
motivational. Nowhere does it say anything about being “humble.”
Still, most successful leaders understand that a sense of humility is
essential to winning hearts and minds. Humility is a visible
demonstration of concern and compassion, as well as authenticity.
Leaders who are to be followed must be leaders who understand the human
condition, especially their own. Those in authority who are blind to
their inner selves are likely to do stupid things, like invade Russia
(Napoleon), invade France and Russia (Hitler) and invade Kuwait
On a less serious note, managers out of touch with reality put their
own interests first — Ken Lay, Richard Scrushy and Dennis Kozlowski
come to mind. None of these supposed leaders demonstrated one iota of
humility, and, in the process, ran their businesses into the ground. By
contrast, leaders such as Colleen Barrett of Southwest Airlines, along
with her leadership team, have created a culture of humility, one that
springs from concern for others as a means of building a people-centric
Humility is an approach to life that says “I don’t have all
the answers and I want your contribution.” For some people, that is no
problem. For people at the top, that may seem akin to saying, “I am
naked.” Or close.
Humility is a form of nakedness, but not a form of exhibitionism.
Rather, it’s a demonstration of acceptance as well as resolve. Humility
is acceptance of individual limitations — I cannot do it alone —
coupled with a sense of resolve to do something about it — I will
enlist the help of others. That is the essence of leadership.
Humility in leadership is something that needs to be communicated. Here are some suggestions
Invite feedback. One of the operative principles of coaching is
giving feedback. Managers need to turn the tables on themselves and
invite their employees to give them feedback, too. But before they can
do this, they must spade the ground. Asking for feedback from
subordinates without proper preparation is akin to pulling a knife on
them. Of course they will tell you what you want to hear. Leaders must
make it safe for their people to offer criticism as well as advice.
When done properly, it builds trust.
Encourage dissent. Part of feedback is dissent, a disagreement
with the central point of view. For leaders, dissent is a good
gut-check as well as a lesson in humility. As with feedback, when you
make it safe for people to voice a discordant note, you get other
points of view. Accept dissent as a form of humility.
Turn failures into lessons. Mistakes give rise to the need for
humility. Instead of trying to cover mistakes up, leaders need to
publicize them. Not for the sake of retribution, but for the sake of
education. According to the Wall Street Journal, Eli Lilly, the
pharmaceutical company, took a second look at a cancer drug that had
failed in human trials. Researchers at Lilly understand that the
scientific method involves a degree of trial and error as well as
failure analysis. The result is that mistakes can be turned into
successes; the failed drug was modified and is now used to treat
another form of cancer.
Expect humility in others. Humility breeds humility. A good
example of this practice is a Buddhist monastery. There all the monks
work in support of the community and in pursuit of a oneness with their
humanity and their spirituality. A sense of personal humility is a key
to self-understanding that in turn leads to greater awareness of the
wholeness of life. In other words, if you show humility, you can ask
and expect others on your team to do the same.
And No One Said it Was Easy
Granted, humility does not inspire people to wake up in the morning
and cry out, “Gosh, I feel humble today.” In fact, too much humility
can erode self-esteem. Ego is essential to leadership because it breeds
If anything, leaders must demonstrate confidence, a sense that they can
do the job. What leaders need to realize is humility need not be
oppositional to confidence but rather supportive of it. Confidence is
not simply about self, but can grow to embrace the entire team. That
is, leaders can, and should, feel more confident knowing they have the
support and the resources of others with which to do the job. And if
the team is not right, then it is the leader’s job to make it so
through job training, personal development and augmentation of people
with other skills.
Humility, however, is the grace note of leadership. One of the
most humble leaders in the history of human expedition is Sir Ernest
Shackleton. Although his voyage to Antarctica ended in disaster, he
brought all of his men home safely. While he led from strength, he
served with humility — he sought to make his team comfortable and
assured throughout every phase of the long journey back to
Humility is admission of humanity, a sense that leader and follower are
in this together. That deepens a sense of trust. Better to admit a
shortcoming, or a limitation, than to lead blindly onto the unknown.