I’m so Proud of my Humility – Servant Leadership

Father James Martin, publisher of the Jesuit magazine America and author of My Life with theSaints (2006) describes an ah-hah moment in his calling when it dawned on him that his literary talents were meant to be of service to others and not for his further aggrandizement.

Robert K.Greenleaf coined the phrase “Servant Leadership”  in an essay he first published in 1970.  Greenleaf said,The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions … The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

Around 1730, while in his late 20s, Benjamin Franklin listed thirteen virtues that he felt were an important guide for living. These virtues consisted of temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Franklin didn’t try to work on them all at once.  Instead, he would work on one and only one each week “leaving all others to their ordinary chance”.  He found humility particularly difficult to master.

Pride, humility and servant leadership.  Three loaded terms representing more than enough material to fill books, but lets take a quick look and then I’ll leave you with a thought to ponder.

During the last 18 months while working on a book project, I had the wonderful opportunity of interviewing more than 30 CEO’s of midmarket companies.  The CEOs backgrounds and experiences ranged from the young entrepreneur to the seasoned veteran of both bear and bull markets.  I also interviewed another fifteen executives of large organizations. Some were CEOs of publicly traded companies, others were senior executives responsible for large pieces of business. Suffice to say that all of these folks were big hitters.  Many of these executives talked about a leadership “ah-hah” moment that centered around putting their company and employees first.

When Father Martin had his “ah-hah” moment, he was suffering from a hand and wrist malady that made it difficult and very painful to write or type. He excelled at writing and took pride in his abilities. Even during his painful hand issues, he found himself being proud of his stoic approach to his condition. In other words, he was proud of his humility!

When Greenleaf coined the“servant leadership” term, he was recapping a long career with AT&T that served as a basis for suggesting a leadership model he felt was both natural and productive for corporate America.

So the question I pose for all of the leaders among us; are you proud of your humility?  Do you feel like it’s important to take credit for all the good things happening in your organization?  Are you open to the suggestions and opinions of others? Do all the good ideas come from you? Are you comfortable sharing success?  Is it instinctive to serve others in your organization?  Are you caught up in the trappings of your position?

The reason I ask these questions is certainly not to preach. I have been guilty of most of these during my career as a business operator. What I have found from my experiences, research, interviews and consulting gigs is that when you are humble, when you become comfortable with serving and when your approach is to seek knowledge and grow, you’ll find your organization emulating your behavior and reaching new levels of superior business results.

In case you want to explore the topic of humility a bit further, here are a few Google starters.

“Humility is the solid foundation of all the virtues.” – Confucius“Humility, “like darkness reveals the heavenly lights.” – Thoreau“Exhibit humility in all you do.  Model Jesus an Socrates” –FranklinAre you proud of your humility ?

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