Thinking about Senator John McCain this morning – along with millions of my fellow Americans and admirers around the world – reminded me of the critical role that character plays in leadership. Whether one agreed with Senator McCain on one issue or another, I’m sure the overwhelming majority of Americans considered the Senator from Arizona a man of sterling character. One aspect of the late Senator’s character that he shared with other illustrious leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, is what I call “true humility” in my book on leading change, Changing By Design. The following thoughts on true humility are adapted from that book.
It seems contradictory to speak of true humility and strength in the same sentence, but I have learned that the two go hand in glove. If a leader’s strength is measured by positive accomplishment and the ability to motivate and help others to contribute in more powerful ways to realizing a vision, then the strongest leaders I have encountered in my work are the humblest, and at the same time the most fundamentally self-confident. Often, as you well know, those who appear the strongest on the surface – those who are loud, combative, self-assertive – turn out to be the weakest when it comes to actual results.
True humility is the cornerstone of successful change leadership: it inspires trust, it steers a firm course that builds confidence and commitment among colleagues and followers, it allows for the listening and learning that are critical to creativity and growth. Truly humble people see themselves not at the center of the universe, but as one part of a grander scheme, a transcendent force for good. There is nothing of the namby-pamby about the truly humble; their steadfastness in the face of adversity, a natural consequence of belief in more than just themselves, inspires other to persevere in troubled times.
Nor seeing themselves as the end-all, be-all of existence, truly humble leaders do not expect or demand perfection in themselves or others, and thus have no need to preserve face at all costs. Being able to admit shortcomings and mistakes before colleagues and followers and to forgive them in others, truly humble leaders help others to be open and to engage in the occasionally risky behavior that fosters learning and creativity.
David Herbert Donald’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln (1995) paints a picture of a truly humble leader whose essential humility contributed to his becoming a historical figure of mythic proportions. According to Donald, Lincoln was keenly aware of his place in the universe. From early in life he “had a sense that his destiny was controlled by some larger force, some Higher Power.” His essential humility made him an avid on-the-job learner. He was able to tolerate huge egos and occasionally disloyal behavior around him in the interest of the greater good. For all his competitiveness in law and politics, Lincoln never had to be seen as having the one “right” answer to a complex question, and this quality has endeared him to succeeding generations.
I now and then found myself parting company with Senator McCain on particular policy issues, but I never for a minute questioned his character or failed to be inspired by his true humility. I feel fortunate to have shared these challenging times with him.