Humility.

That’s right. And this applies to both the attitude and the act. If you really want to lead others, embrace humility as a virtuous attitude. If you really want to lead your team to victory, be humble. Manage your ego, speak of your weaknesses and admit your mistakes. Follow others and point out where THEY excel (not you). And listen. Not to be polite, but to learn.

It’s profoundly simple:

If you really want to be a great leader, promote others.

Sound familiar? Just about every sustainable social, political or religious system is built on the premise of service - making others, or every-one better. Even better than you!

If you aren’t convinced by my as yet unsubstantiated statements of “belief,” the same can be observed in the more “hard” sciences of biology (e.g., symbiotic organisms, each depending on and strengthening the other), chemistry (e.g., catalysts, subtle agents activating massive reactions) and physics (e.g., levers that give small objects power over those much larger). These are a bit of a stretch on humility, but they do illustrate how simple or small agents can have a huge, even life saving effect on another. The point is, sometimes humble leaders make their teams significantly better just by being available and providing a little 'boost.'

In fact, we’re wired (genetically) to do this. And it’s a good thing. If we don’t take care of each other, we go away. “I win, you lose” systems ultimately yield one ... "winner"? We both need and lead each other. {There is no grammatical error in the preceding sentence.} We encourage our children for their effort. We help our friends in adversity. In healthy relationships, we praise our partner, not ourselves. And in faith, we honor a being greater than anything of which we can conceive. We do this for no obvious credit. We’re just built that way. (Mostly – keep reading)

That girl (boy)

Remember that “most popular” kid in seventh grade? About the time when hormones rushed through your veins like water over Niagara Falls. (Don’t think about a rhyme here.) What made them so popular? Was it because they were: the best at sports? the best in class? the most physically attractive? the coolest dresser? Sure. Any of these could be true. In fact at least one of them probably was. But NONE of these are THE reason that “that girl” was the most alluring among a class full of adorable children (just think about puppies if “adorable” escapes your thought of seventh graders).

... she made you feel singularly special

“That girl” was different – not by much, yet by everything. She was the apple of your eye because she made you feel singularly special; just like she did with everyone else.

Don’t read this as playground politics. They REALLY DID make every-one feel special, regardless of the usual ‘optics’ or common trappings of attractiveness. But, what did you know – or even care? They made YOU feel special. They put YOU in front of them. And for that, you’d follow them anywhere.

Good players score; great players win.

So: Can the “trash talk.” Cheer others on. Good players score; great players win. They do this by making everyone ELSE great. You already know this: They’d rather share in team victory than gloat in personal achievement.

Well, Yes, but…

Argh! Don’t you hate that? There’s always a “but.” The good news is if you practice humility, you have a much better chance your “but” doesn't get in your way.

Sometimes the humble leader turns out to be a feckless loser.

Humility doesn’t always work. In some circumstances being humble won’t make you a better leader. Sometimes the humble leader turns out to be a feckless loser. But (and this is a good ‘but’) research reveals the key factor that determines whether you achieve success or failure as a selfless, other-oriented, humble leader.

The Team.

The answer isn't that surprising, but why it is, is.

Researchers have found that the collective personality of team members makes a big difference. If a team is largely composed of proactive members, (i.e., those who take action, want to get better or care about others) a humble leader is effectively praising others (literally) to victory. If, however, a team is composed of reticent, languishing, ‘could care-less’ members, the humble leader is culpably helpless.

If you don't have to lead - DON'T.

So what does this all mean?

  1. If you don’t have to lead – DON’T. Sharing leadership is much more effective for motivated teams. Therefore,
  2. Build a proactive team. If you don’t want to be the “kindergarten cop,” staff up (instead of them) with folks that take action. Not because they’re impatient or greedy; because they care enough to do something on their own. But,
  3. If you find yourself with a team of slackers, it’s best to rule by the “carrot and stick”. (Or the weed eater). This is the time for, “It’s my way - or the highway.”

In Sum

Sometimes great leaders follow.

Great leaders humbly share leadership. In so doing, great leaders mold a team of individuals who similarly share leadership – which makes them great. You see where this is going. Leadership shared, begets shared leadership. And with shared leadership, a team is self-reinforcing. They operate in a virtuous cycle wherein the team performs far beyond the figurative sum of the individuals. The “formal leader” gives way to informal leaders by serving as their lever or catalyst to victory. This results in others leading and following others at the right time, in the right place. So it’s true: Sometimes great leaders follow.

As I’ve written before, we are social animals with two instinctive needs: to get along and to get ahead. Many of us favor one instinct over another. Leaders who overemphasize getting along lack the fortitude to challenge others when they are clearly falling behind. Leaders who emphasize getting ahead may drive a team to victory, but will never repeat it. (At least not with the same team). Out of humility, great leaders do both: they get along AND get ahead.

Is there plenty of ‘praise’ in my “ap-PRAIS-al” of others?

Here’s a simple test to see if you’re a humble leader. It’s also valid as a humility or health check for partners, friends or family members: Ask yourself, “Is there plenty of ‘praise’ in my “ap-PRAIS-al” of others?” If you have to think, your “team” (partner, friend, brother, etc.) may be plotting their exit strategy now.

Psychology at work. It really makes a difference.

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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