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Humility is Good for Business! (#86)

The Confident Leader

At the retirement of the headmaster of my daughter’s school, each presenter described the leader as truly humble. After three hours, the extravagant praise left me skeptical and wondering: do humble leaders still exist in a look-at-me world? 

It’s hard to be humble, when you’re as great as I am.
— Muhammed Ali (American professional boxer)

This Week’s Edition

What is humility? A state of being? A skill? Can it be trained? A friend offers the following joke, “Humility. I’m really good at that!” This highlights the conundrum of true humility as a leadership trait.

Clarify Your Thinking

After the shower of praise, the headmaster walked to the podium. How would he respond? He looked at the audience and quietly said, “That was too much Dave for one night.” Eureka! We found a humble leader. 

Humble leadership seems rare in today’s world especially when optics matter. Twenty years ago, Jim Collins’ research in his book, Good to Great, posited that leaders who possess a level of personal humility (Level 5 Leader) are more likely to move their organizations to elite levels. So, humility must be good for business. 

The dictionary says humility is “being non-assertive or not arrogant.” I challenge that definition because ‘assertive’ is an essential emotional intelligence skill – the ability to communicate thoughts, beliefs and opinions in a non-offensive manner.  This is a key trait for successful leaders.

The “not arrogant” part is problematic too as it leaves leaders guessing, “am I too meek? Too mild? Do I need to play act being more assertive? Is arrogance that bad when I must swim with sharks?” Leaders who may wrestle with these questions can experience leadership doubt that diminishes their effectiveness. 

Thoughts Lead to Actions

Setting the humility analysis aside, let me ask you this, “is your leadership open-handed or close-fisted? 

An open-handed style of leadership says to others, “whatever I’ve got you may have.” I’ll give you praise, ask for your feedback, provide you the tools you need, set proper expectations, encourage time to rest and renew, etc…

Whereas a close-fisted style may be seen as grabby, taking, withholding and territorial.  This week a leader experienced a colleague taking her idea from a collaboration session and passing it off to the higherups as her own. Another leader questioned his partners as withholding significant portions of bonuses earned by employees solely to improve the balance sheet for a future transaction.

Open-handed leadership serves others, but it requires one to embrace the concept of generosity and a belief that it is the only truly renewable energy source – a currency that is bountiful to the point of being infinite.

I’m not able to tell you how to be humble in three easy steps. But I can show you – first-hand real-life examples of leaders who humbly serve others without expectation of benefit to themselves:

  1. One leader who pays off his employees’ student debt without requiring a contractual indentured servitude.

  2. One leader who publicly committed to not laying off his hundreds of hourly employees at the dawn of the pandemic even before PPP loans existed.

  3. One leader who pays for community college for any employee or their family member.

  4. One leader who sends his employees on once-in-a-lifetime trips just to say, ‘thank you.’


Intrigued? Well, try this little exercise every day for a week:

  1. Open your hands in front of you.

  2. Say out loud, “what I have is yours.”

  3. Trust that what you give away to others will come back to you multi-fold.

Repeat this little exercise until you’ve created the new neural pathways in your brain that make it a routine, a habit of generosity. Perhaps others my honor you with the label, humble leader.


Boost Your Performance

Ben Franklin, snubbed by a benefactor promising to put him in business, spent two years working in England to earn enough to return to America. Vowing to never be duped again, he authored a life plan. A mentor highlighted that his manifesto had a fatal flaw. Find out the rest of the story in this week’s video.

What’s Your Opinion?

Who is the most humble leader you know? Share with me at:

Don’t let doubt count you out. Have a confident week!

Robin Pou, Chief Advisor and Strategist

If this was helpful, feel free to share it with another leader who needs to defeat doubt and complete their confidence.

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What is “The Confident Leader”?

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, I began a video series called “Panic or Plan?” It was designed to equip leaders to navigate the doubt they experienced and to rise in the confidence they needed to lead during turbulent times. It took off. I then started this newsletter to equip leaders in the same fashion each week for the doubt that crashes across the bow of their leaderSHIP.

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