I have very fond memories of growing up in Vandalia, Illinois, a town of some 5,000 people around 50 miles east of St. Louis – at the northern tip of Southern Illinois. On the square downtown stands the handsomely restored Old State Capital building. Abraham Lincoln attended sessions of the Illinois General Assembly there, as a young legislator of very modest means from Sangamon County to the north. Needless to say, I grew up steeped in Lincoln lore.
As the years have passed, and I’ve built a national practice in nonprofit board and CEO leadership, my interest in – and admiration for – Lincoln has grown ever stronger. One trait of Lincoln’s I most admire (and that I describe in my book Changing By Design) is what I call “true humility.” A characteristic of the most effective board members and CEOs I’ve worked with over the past quarter-century, true humility is the opposite of being weak and self-deprecating. The truly humble leaders I’ve known and worked with are, like Lincoln, high-achieving, self-assured, emotionally secure human beings. But they aren’t by any means arrogant. Their self-confidence and healthy egos allow them to attract really strong people to them, and, not needing constant ego reinforcement, they are able to celebrate and take full advantage of these strong people, even when they’re critical and challenging. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s superb book on Lincoln’s working relationship with the members of his cabinet, Team of Rivals, vividly documents this trait in action during the Civil War.
Can a person who doesn’t naturally possess true humility – who tends to need lots of ego reinforcement and who’s threatened by people who challenge him or her – learn the trait? Experience has made me a believer in the capacity of people to grow and change if they really want to, and I’ve seen leaders who have been able to change behavior before they’ve readjusted their feelings. For example, the CEO of a highly regarded aging services nonprofit confided to me that she had felt really defensive when challenged by some of her staff in a meeting, but that she had managed to hold her tongue and resist lashing out. She was even able to pay attention to the comments and mull them over later. Less than perfect true humility, to be sure, but far better than just rejecting criticism out of hand or, worse yet, punishing those who offer it. I’ve heard similar stories from highly successful CEOs and superintendents all over the country.
I’d like to hear your stories of true humility in action and your accounts of people who have been able to move in that direction, growing beyond their defensiveness and need for ego reinforcement.