Leadership: The Battle between Humility and Hubris

Pepper de Callier

True or false: A real leader must always appear to be the smartest and the most powerful person in the room.

If this doesn’t sound like a silly question you really need to read today’s column.

Recently, United States President, Barak Obama, was severely criticized for appearing weak and servile for bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia and the Emperor of Japan. I read one blog that justified this criticism by saying, “A leader should act in such a way that strengthens, not weakens, his position.” In other words, don’t humble yourself to anyone. As I read it I thought to myself how ironic this blog was, because it is precisely the ability to be humble that shows great strength in a leader.

I have studied and evaluated leaders for many years and I can say that one of the most telling signs of weakness in a leader is hubris: the condescending, bullying, appearance of superiority that some people cling to as a magic cloak that they think hides their lack of intelligence, feelings of inferiority, or fear that they will be discovered as an imposter.

Humility and empathy, on the other hand, are two qualities of great leadership. History is full of so many examples of this. In the 12th century the great British warrior king, Richard the Lionheart, and his army met the army of the great Kurdish warrior and leader, Saladin, in the 3rd Crusade. Saladin was so impressed with the courage and ferocity with which Richard fought on the battlefield that he sent Richard one of his prized Arabian stallions. Was this an act of submission and cowardice on the part of Saladin? Hardly. It was an acknowledgement of his respect for the brave king. Stories of highly competitive athletes stopping to help a fallen competitor during the “heat of battle” in competitions ranging from youth league football to national championships in a variety of sports are many and they never lose their ability to inspire us by their example of respect and caring that transcends the immediacy of the moment.

I’m talking about something that is much larger than the individual and her or his self-interest. In the realm of the business world, a competent leader knows that his or her humility and respect will open doors to mutual understanding and dialogue not only with a competitor, supplier, or customer, but with the people who look to that person every day for leadership. True leaders are very conscious of their power and its potential impact, good and bad, on everything they do—whether it’s sending troops into battle or getting angry with a secretary—and they have a sober and serious sense of respect for that power.

A leader who listens quietly with respect soon discovers that subordinates begin to mimic that behavior and a culture of respectfully listening to others takes root. The same thing happens when a leader is seen to act honorably, ethically and in consideration of others. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Poor leaders—ones who are interested in nothing more than transactions—create an environment in which their faults are passed along and demonstrated by their employees in the way they perform their duties and the way they treat others.

When I see a picture of President Obama bowing to the Japanese Emperor, weak, servile, behavior is the last thing that comes to my mind. I see a leader sending a powerful message to his staff, his government and his country: Being the most powerful nation on earth does not mean we are not required to be humble, gracious, respectful and polite. Quite the contrary. It magnifies the compliment we pay to others and it sets an example of how we expect to be treated.

Now, let me be very clear. I am not saying that a leader shouldn’t be tough when the situation calls for it, and therein lies the message: Good leaders know much of their power is dependent upon a well-developed understanding of the situational aspects of behavior—when to do what, with whom, and to what degree. They have confidence and a good sense of what is appropriate. They don’t need a magic cloak in which to wrap themselves because they know their wisdom and actions speak for themselves. They are not afraid to show the world (or company) who they are.

Voters, shareholders, Boards of Directors and all stakeholders in the 21st century, or as I refer to it—The Age of Wisdom—will increasingly seek out leaders in government and in business who understand the interconnectedness of the world today, the need for partnerships and alliances, the need for inclusive solutions and respect for different cultures. What a leader needs to know about meeting others in today’s world is best summed up in the title of one of my favorite reference books on doing business in a global environment: Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries.