The title for this week’s post comes from an article I read last week in the Spring 2023 issue of the Notre Dame Magazine entitled, “The Fourth Virtue,” by David Shribman. The credit for me seeing this article goes to one of my closest friends, mentors, and very first bosses after I graduated from Northwestern Kellogg in 1979, Frank Baird. Frank described the article as “a fascinating article on humility and how some leaders have it and others don’t — and the difference it makes,” and recommended that I read it (which I did, of course, since I’ve always done what Frank has told me to do! 😉)
As many of you know from my teaching and writing, I believe that becoming a values-based leader requires a journey of closely following and making progress on practicing FOUR PRINCIPLES: Self-reflection, balance, true self confidence, and genuine humility. In prior blog posts, as well as in my book, “From Values to Action,” I outline the steps necessary to progress in this journey to becoming a values-based leader.
When I tell students and leaders that my fourth principle is GENUINE HUMILITY, I am often asked why I include the word “genuine.” Isn’t it enough to call it simply “humility?” I find it necessary to include “genuine,” however, because many of us have experienced leaders who can act humble but are not genuine about it at all. The crazy thing is that these folks don’t seem to realize that most people can see through their charade. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes attributed to Andrew Carnegie: “The older I get, the less I listen to what people say and the more I watch what they do.”
I believe the best way to get a sense of someone’s genuine humility is to ask them a simple question: “How did you get to where you are in your career?” Many people will answer that it was a combination of working hard and skill sets. That may be partly true, but I ask them if there were other elements that may have played an important part in their career progression. How about luck? Timing? The team? Mentors and sponsors? How about possible religious or spiritual gifts and talents you have received from God? The realization that it isn’t “all about you” helps in the journey of genuine humility.
Every once in a while (but not often), I read something that reinforces these concepts. In this case, David Shribman builds a case for HUMILITY as a key requirement of a values-based leader that is fantastic. I love the way he defines humility before divulging what it is:
‘It is the attribute not exhibited, the disposition not there, the characteristic apparent only in its absence, the one distinction demonstrated not in what is, but in what isn’t.’
While I define GENUINE HUMILITY as the fourth principle of values-based leadership, David Shribman defines HUMILITY as the “fourth virtue,” following faith, hope, and charity. I never thought of humility in that context, but it makes a lot of sense.
One of the reasons Shribman’s thoughts resonate with me is that they are very consistent with my simple model of leadership:
Relate –> Influence –> Leadership
The ability to RELATE is a key driver of leadership, and most people don’t relate well to people that are egotistical, arrogant, obnoxious or narcissistic — just to name a few turnoffs.
Shribman uses names of people we all know to make his concept of humility very concrete:
“Dwight D. Eisenhower had it, but George S. Patton didn’t. Henry Aaron but not Babe Ruth. Nat King Cole but not Beyoncé. Judy Woodruff but not Geraldo Rivera. J.D. Salinger but not Norman Mailer. Warren Buffett but not Elon Musk. Jonas Salk but not Dr. Oz. Johnny Unitas but not Joe Namath. Martin Luther King but not Jim Bakker. Iris Murdoch but not Rupert Murdoch. And, it must be said, Calvin Coolidge but not Donald J. Trump.”
My students sometimes ask me how to balance “true self confidence” and “genuine humility,” and I respond we should seek more of both. That is, having true self confidence doesn’t mean we always have to know the answers and never change our minds. In fact, admitting we don’t know all the answers and are sometimes wrong is a sign of “true self confidence.” A true values-based leader is not focused on being right, but on trying to do the right thing.
Shribman states it in a wonderful way: “The goal of intellectual humility is to nurture the ability to revise our opinions and be good listeners, even as we remain confident enough in our own views to take others’ into consideration — capacities with great utility in a university setting, in the party leader’s seat in the Senate, at a dinner party, or on cable television. We might think of intellectual humility as a 21st-century update on the 19th-century tenet of the poet, Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, who wrote:
“There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
I encourage you to read Shribman’s article here.
Photo of Martin Luther King statue by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash