Leadership Starts With Humility

We’ve all seen the memes comparing a “Boss” to a “Leader”. Though there are numerous versions, these ubiquitous images list the qualities of each individual in a single, simple presentation. Bosses command, Leaders coach. Bosses say “I”, Leaders say “We”. (Etc, etc, etc…) While powerful, one important leadership quality that is generally underrepresented in these motivational displays is humility. This, I submit, may be the single most important factor in an executive’s effectiveness.

Anyone who’s spent any time leading a team has probably learned that the more you can get your people on board with the mission, project or task at hand, the better the chance of success. There’s a simple reason for this. The fact is, as human beings we tend to put more effort into something with which we agree. We’re less likely to agree with the approach if we aren’t able to provide input. If we don’t agree with the path, then we’re much more likely to exert less than our best efforts. As Leaders, it’s in our best interest to find a way to get our team on board. When we do that, not only do we minimize the risk of failure, but we also increase the ease of managing the project.

Servant Leadership

So, how do we get our team on board?

Servant Leadership, of course.

That sounds great in theory, but what does that mean in practice?

difference between boss and leaderIt means that as Leaders, we need to engage our team. We need to rely on their expertise (which is presumably why we hired them) and not assume that we have all the answers. This means actively seeking their input, not stating as fact what we believe the challenge or solution to be. It means encouraging them to come up with ideas and not simply giving them orders. It means letting them define the road-map, not giving them turn by turn directions. Most importantly, it means showing your people that they are in fact, valued members of the team. We need to be servant-leaders and nurture our people so they can achieve their full potential.

From Harvard Business Review:

“To put it bluntly, servant-leaders have the humility, courage, and insight to admit that they can benefit from the expertise of others who have less power than them. They actively seek the ideas and unique contributions of the employees that they serve. This is how servant leaders create a culture of learning, and an atmosphere that encourages followers to become the very best they can.”

Do we do this in a magnanimous, selfless act? Hopefully, but probably not. Ideally, we truly care about our people and want them to succeed. We dedicate much of our thought processes to finding ways to teach our people and help them grow in the company and their careers. With that said, our primary goals and responsibilities are obviously to the organization, which provides an ulterior motive. Leadership requires us to not only lead but ultimately to arrive somewhere. That destination (or more accurately, that journey) needs to advance the goals of the organization in some way or we won’t maintain our leadership position for very long.

If you’re like me, you’ve worked for or with companies that still use the, dare I say, outdated top-down management style. These organizations often have a very rigid structure where roles are defined and people are expected to stay in their respective boxes. (No, I’m not suggesting corporate anarchy as an alternative.)

Very often, these businesses directly correlate an individual’s potential contribution with the rung on the ladder that they currently occupy. They have meetings to discuss issues but fail to include the people at the lower end of the organization that deal with the issues on a daily basis. As a result, they exclude the very people that are likely much better suited to finding the appropriate solution. They make decisions and give orders, frequently making the assumption that they don’t need input from the troops. Sometimes, they are correct, however this type of management style usually doesn’t make people feel as though they’re part of the team. In the long term, many opportunities are missed.

Servant Leadership requires us to set aside our preconceived notions and our ego. It requires us to consider the possibility that someone far lower on the ladder may be better positioned to tackle a given issue than we are. It means admitting that we don’t know everything and can’t solve every problem.

It means having humility.


Kevin A. Nye on Linkedin
Kevin A. Nye
Management Consultant
With over 20 years of management experience to share, my background spans multiple industries including industrial service and maintenance, wholesale distribution, import/e-commerce, third party logistics, HVAC manufacturing and steel processing. During this time, I have served in leadership positions ranging from Inventory and Operations Management to Regional Manager to Chief Operating Officer and have consulted for many companies across many industries. My primary specialty is helping small and medium sized businesses implement "big business" ideas to provide the structure necessary to support their continued growth.