Humility is Key to Successful Leadership

I was with a national leader all day yesterday who was asked by his boss to take on a major role in our nation’s security after 9/11. The boss of his boss reported directly to the President of the United States.

He immediately told his bosses he was not the most qualified for this major national leadership role and asked if they would consider others rather than him. They insisted and he devoted himself to mastering the mission, rose to the occasion, and was highly effective at a critical time.

His integrity is an excellent example to us all.

So, let’s move to the leadership lesson here.

The best people and leaders readily admit if others would be better at the job and even recommend them. We admit when we are not the right person for the job. Why? The mission matters most. Those we serve must come first.

Integrity requires competence. If I am less competent or incompetent, I must be honest with myself and others. If I cannot train to the task at hand, master the mission, and be the right leader at the right time, I should not pursue the position or expect the promotion.

It’s an integrity issue if I insist on seeking, holding, and retaining a position which will always be beyond my competence. Others will experience the costs and consequences of my arrogance, incompetence, and intransigence.

Humility, honesty, listening to others about my impact on them, an objective understanding of myself, and accepting reality are key to integrity.

These are leadership values.

Sadly, we see this all the time today when people expect and get promotions which clearly exceed their competence and eclipse their ability to rise to the challenge. The results are predictable. The impact on the mission and team is always negative sometimes catastrophically so. The person has chosen self above service. That’s not leadership. It’s a character problem.

Either prepare for or pass on the promotion and suggest others or do what it takes to be the right leader in that role at this time if you are directed to do it. Be honest with yourself and to others. Those are the only options for a genuine leader.


From the Teacher: Leadership Lessons with Dr. Saviak is a weekly column with the esteemed Joseph C. Saviak, Ph.D., J.D., M.A., M.S., Management Consulting & Leadership Training.


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