The power of humility: People Power - Apr 2017

By Sam Allman

What role does humility play in people power? It is not only a beneficial but a necessary trait for those who seek to lead. “Tough times never last,” said author Robert Schuller, “but tough people do.” There are many good examples of strength, but humility is harder to nail down because it is quiet. It is not self-seeking. As C.S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

We want the people we choose to follow to be strong. After all, we may need them to step up and stand up in difficult times, like Rudy Giuliani did in New York City after 9-11, and Winston Churchill did during the Battle of Britain at the beginning of World War II. Strength was required by both Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. as they came up against the societal roadblocks to eliminating apartheid and segregation. 

We also want our leaders to believe and have conviction in their purpose, vision and direction. That conviction gives us hope when there is little of it. Winston Churchill manifested that conviction when he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Who would like to go into a battle with a general who says, “I think we can win”? My thought would be, “You go first.” The first rule of leadership or people power is, as author H. Jackson Brown, Jr. said, “Never deprive someone of hope; it might be all they have.”

Strength of confidence by a leader or a person with people power inspires others. Inspiration helps those inspired to dig deep and push themselves when they are tired. It makes them get up when they are down or lacking in hope. Paraphrasing Churchill, if we want others to believe, we must first believe. 

But getting others to believe is very difficult. As basketball coach Rick Pitino said, the greatest challenge a leader faces is getting his people to believe in themselves. People who win, achieve and accomplish believe that they can do so. That’s why influencing others through conviction and confidence is a strong component of people power. If someone believes that they are incapable of doing something, the odds are that they will give up before starting and wouldn’t even try.

Confidence and conviction are such important people power traits that it is hard to conceive that there would ever be a time when they wouldn’t be necessary. But there are. An overused strength can actually become a weakness or a self-defeating behavior. Unbridled self-confidence can lead to arrogance. Think of all the self-defeating behaviors that are associated with arrogant people: they think they know it all-a sure sign of incompetence; they don’t listen; they are close-minded; they are insensitive to others; they think they are infallible; and they think that they are smarter than everyone else. I’m sure you could add more to the mix. 

What is the solution for arrogance? Humility. Of course, I am not talking about the humility that is associated with weakness and fragility. Humility taken to the extreme can become a self-defeating behavior. It leads to self-effacement and self-deprecation. Self-deprecating people expect to fail; they tell themselves that they are unworthy of success, love and happiness; they create feelings of helplessness; and worst of all, they quit trying or don’t try at all. “What’s the use? It’s just the way I am.” The fact is that failure makes us all momentarily feel helpless. That is not the humility of people power, which is not self-defeating.

The humility of people power and leadership is not a weakness. Paradoxically, this humility takes great strength to exemplify. But it wields great influence and power over others. That power comes not from the strength of the humble person but from those who volunteer to be influenced by him or her. This power is the power that comes from honor. When a person is honored, people choose to listen and choose to be influenced. It cannot be demanded; it can only be granted.

The primary hallmark of people with humility is their quest for continuous learning and growth. They don’t believe in perfection; there is always something to improve and learn. They want to be the best they can be. They are always looking for ways to improve themselves and the status quo. They have what Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University calls the “learning mindset.” They believe that strengths can be improved, and weaknesses can become strengths. Therefore, they seek advice and feedback, they hire coaches and consultants, and they collaborate with others. 

Leaders with humility surround themselves with people who are smarter or more knowledgeable than they are. They are not interested with yes-men or people who agree with everything they say. They take to heart the words of advertising magnate David Ogilvy, who says, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” It makes me think of Abraham Lincoln’s team of rivals.

Humility demonstrates its desire for improvement. Pablo Casals was once asked why, as he was already the greatest cellist of all time, he practiced every day. “I think I am making progress,” he replied. We can’t learn new things if we cannot admit we are works in progress. Being open to recognizing our own faults is critical to growing as both a leader and a human being. Truly humble people are real and not self-deluded. They know their strengths and weaknesses.

Those with a learning mindset are open-minded. Open-minded people seek what’s right instead of being right. Humble people are curious and seekers of truth. Open-mindedness is also seeking to see the world from another’s perspective, whether one agrees with that perspective or not. Listening is a key characteristic of open-mindedness. You can’t learn anything through an open mouth. That’s why empathetic leaders and salespeople are influential with their constituents and customers. Empathy opens the mind of others. Though you may think you understand others, if they don’t feel understood, it won’t matter. Your empathy does not count. Your empathy has to be felt by others if you want to influence them.

Humble people with people power are not afraid to risk. They don’t define themselves by failure. They celebrate failure as part of the learning process. When they fail, they don’t self-deprecate. They encourage themselves to keep going, try harder, practice more, seek help or mentors, consider alternatives, brainstorm, and seek the opinions of others. It reminds me of Thomas Edison, who was chided for failing so many times to make the light bulb. His response was, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Finally, humble people are not afraid to recognize and give credit when credit is due. Taking credit for someone else’s work is a sign of a lack of integrity. It destroys trust. But when a leader shares the spotlight with his team and gives accolades when they are due, trust is increased and honor is granted. Alternatively, when there is failure, the humble leader or the person with people power will take responsibility. Ironically, taking responsibility without blaming others increases people power. When President John F. Kennedy took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba, his approval rating skyrocketed literally overnight.

Having humility or being humble may appear to be a sign of weakness. Admitting that you are wrong, or that you failed, or that you don’t know, or that you’re fallible, or that you are responsible, or that you made a mistake, or that you are weak, or that you need help, or that you are not better or smarter than everyone else, or that you are not perfect, or that you are still learning, or that you listen to criticism, or that you are just a work in progress-these admissions prove you are real and authentic. Think how powerful Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Jesus became because of the honor bestowed on them by their constituents. They were humble, but strong, leaders.

Admitting your humanness takes real ego strength. Most of us get defensive when criticized. We hide our weaknesses, failures and inadequacies when confronted, and we have to prove we are right when we may not be because it will show signs of weakness and fallibility. The paradox is that when we do admit we are not perfect and need help, it increases our people power. There is a time for both humility and confidence. Actually, they complement each other and work better together. They complete each other. The hard part is knowing which is most appropriate in any given situation. When contemplating strength, we must also consider the potency found in humility. 

Copyright 2017 Floor Focus