If Every Fool Wore a Crown…

night sky scapeThe very concept of humility rarely crosses the mind of most people in positions of authority. It is simply not how we are typically conditioned to think. Our culture champions the loud, the bold, the brazen and ruthless. We live in a self-centric society. It’s the ‘me’ generation – self-absorbed, self-centered, entitled and narcissistic, demanding instant gratification and lacking concern for others. It’s every man for himself, every woman for herself.

It’s no surprise that humility is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, and those with a humble unassuming demeanor are perceived as lacking self-esteem or confidence. Quite the contrary, humility is the epitome of self-confidence, a comfortable assurance mindful of pretension and vanity. There’s a wonderful quote by William Temple that aptly sums it up…

“Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.” – William Temple

Contrary to the view of leadership that many managers maintain, superior leaders have a heart for service. But servitude in this context does not mean that leaders are subservient – they don’t wait on people, do their jobs for them, or clean up their messes. Servitude means that leaders work on behalf of the people they lead, serving the best interests of the individuals, team, customers, and organization. They provide guidance and coaching and continuity of vision and direction, delegate effectively, but also roll up their sleeves when appropriate.

Humble leaders constantly strive to better others. They don’t need to seek the spotlight of recognition for themselves, especially to the exclusion of others. Their success is defined not by being indispensable to the organization, but by leading others to self-sufficiency. The most effective leader is one who makes his or her own presence largely unnecessary on a minute by minute, day by day basis. They lead, empower, and cultivate an environment where personal ownership and alignment with organizational mission is the motivator, rather than mere managerial oversight.

Finally, leaders who understand the importance of humility also don’t abuse their authority. In fact, they understand the difference between having authority and being authoritative. Authority is like a sword. Those who are authoritative swing it indiscriminately, either to reinforce their position of power or through simple inexperience. New managers in particular have a dangerous tendency to let their freshly bestowed title go straight to their heads. They wield their title like a sword, without first establishing credibility and trust. These managers have not yet figured out that there is no correlation between title and authority beyond the implied presumption of power. Like trust and respect, the crown of true authority is influence, and influence is earned, not bestowed.

David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, exemplified humility in his leadership and management of his company. A man who avoided publicity, Packard is quoted as saying: “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do.”

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Principles vs. Preferences: Are You a Disciplined Leader?

business-foundationSelf-discipline, resilience, and integrity all go hand in hand.  But in a much broader sense, the discipline that strong leaders demonstrate reflects much more than mere self-control.

Disciplined leaders must be able to consistently make decisions that are clear-headed, informed, and conclusive.  Their response to difficult and stressful situations is thoughtful and purposeful, never random or subjective, particularly in emotionally charged situations.  Objectives are communicated clearly and unambiguously. This is not always an easy thing to do, which is why self-discipline has such a profound impact on those around us.  To borrow (and modify) a quote from the world of sports… “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”  A firm, definite, and decisive leader demonstrates grace under pressure, very clearly reinforcing the perception that he or she is in complete control (of both the situation and his/her own emotions).

While disciplined leaders are by necessity decisive, they must at the same time exercise sound judgment. Emotions run high in times of crisis.  Most people intuitively look for someone to “do something” in emergencies. It requires great discipline to think before responding.  Any situation that requires action, whether a crisis, conflict, or everyday business decision, necessitates a thoughtful and measured response from a leader.  Knowledge and experience are necessary, even crucial.  But like a sword, they are only as effective as the person wielding them.

Leaders can, and should be, flexible when appropriate.  However, it is one thing to compromise on matters of preference, it is quite another to compromise on matters of principle. Principles are rooted in personal doctrine or institutional values, and are a specific basis for conduct or management. Preferences are simply a matter of who controls non-essentials, and are driven by experience and familiarity.

It is one thing to compromise on matters of preference, it is quite another to compromise on matters of principle.

Strong, disciplined leaders understand this difference.  Unfortunately, in a world where the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing. As a consequence, the line between principle and preference is grayed. Principles are compromised for sake of appeasement or through capitulation to the path of least resistance.

It takes courage to draw a line in the sand, to stand up for what you believe.  Some consider this to be close-minded or prejudicial, even intolerant.  One thing is for sure.  Those in positions of influence weaken themselves as leaders whenever they compromise their principles.  Whether in the business world or politics, it is rare to find everyone in agreement.  This is not to say that leaders shouldn’t be appropriately questioned. Convictions that can’t be reasonably defended should be rightfully challenged.

In a world where the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing.

Values vary and people come to different conclusions and form different beliefs.  It requires strength of conviction and great discipline to stay the course when faced with temptation to concede or compromise principles. However, people are far more willing to follow a principled and disciplined leader, even one with whom they disagree.  By contrast, no one will follow a leader they don’t trust or in whom they have no faith, leaders who fail to be true to themselves and the principles on which they claim to stand.

The Quiet Resolve of Uncommon Courage

On January 26, 1945, just weeks after receiving a battlefield promotion from staff sergeant to second lieutenant, Audie Murphy found himself a company commander in Holtzwihr, France. With temperatures in the teens and 24 inches of snow on the ground, Murphy’s unit was down to 19 of its original 128 men. Facing a German tank attack, Murphy ordered his men to retreat and then stood alone and wounded atop a burning half-track, manning a machine gun and directing artillery fire into the enemy position 100 feet in front of him. Asked by the artillery officer how close the Germans were to him, Murphy snapped back, “Hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one.” The artillery fire and subsequent counter attack led by Murphy successfully repelled the Germans, and Audie was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire.

Murphy’s example of valor is uncommon, but it’s important to understand that his actions were not motivated out of a desire for personal advancement or notoriety. He was just 19 years old that January of 1945, having lied about his age and enlisted in the Amy at age 16. He didn’t set out to become a leader or a hero; he simply wanted to serve his country and protect the men in his unit. Prior to his promotion to lieutenant, Audie had already earned a Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars as an enlisted man. In his later years he summed up his perspective on leadership succinctly, “Lead from the front.”

Military heroics such as Murphy’s provide obvious examples of courage. However, there is much more to courage than performing brave deeds. Courage manifests itself in many forms and in small, everyday ways. Sometimes courage is demonstrated on the field of battle where all the world may eventually bear witness. But other times it’s demonstrated in the boardroom or conference room, before colleagues and superiors. Sometimes courage is tested in the face of overwhelming peer pressure or public opinion, and sometimes it is quietly demonstrated in defense of others who are not even aware.

It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required. – Winston Churchill

No one would argue that courage is often the catalyst for action. But at times, it also takes courage to be patient, to stand down rather than act immediately, especially when confronted with adversity. Knowing when to intervene and when to let events run their course comes with experience and confidence. Courageous leaders calmly assess the situation and explore alternatives, even as others respond emotionally, demanding swift action. This measured response to adversity requires discipline and the courage.

Courageous leaders take the initiative and act in the best interest of others, regardless of their own position or level of authority. They don’t wait to be told, or (necessarily) wait to ask permission. I once worked for someone who taught me that when confronted with a crisis, it’s better to act and be wrong than just sit back and do nothing. I believe that to be generally true, but it’s also important to note that sometimes acting in the best interest of others means allowing them to fail so that they might learn from the experience. Courageous leaders make decisions that serve the greatest long term good, even at the expense of short term personal gain.

Courage keeps trudging along regardless of obstacles, sometimes in the face of fear, but always out of conviction for what is right, for what needs to be done. A popular quote states that character is revealed in the actions taken when no one is looking. I would add that courage provides the resolve.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.” – Mary Anne Radmacher