Why Humility is Essential to Effective Leadership


Think about someone who’s a successful leader. What’s the first word that comes to mind?

Chances are, that word isn’t “humility.”

And really, it isn’t too surprising. Most people don’t think of leaders as humble. After all, leadership jargon is dominated by words like creative, charismatic, and visionary.

So it might surprise you to learn that humility is crucial for effective leadership. In fact, humility is the most important characteristic a leader can have.

Humility, from a leadership perspective.

According to Willink, humility in a leader is about being humble enough to know that you might need to adjust your plans. “If you don’t have humility, it’s going to bite you.” he said. “Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not even next year. But it will come back to bite you.”

You also want to cultivate humility in the people you put in leadership roles within your organization. Of course, you want people who will work hard, and you want people who want to win. But a person who makes bad decisions — decisions that hurt your company — because those decisions are a win for them? You don’t need people like them in your company.

“When I was putting people in leadership positions on the SEAL team,” Willink said, “I asked myself, who is humble enough to not think they know everything? Who listens to what other people have to say? Who recognizes they can be wrong about some of their ideas? Those are the people I want on my team.”

Don’t ride your parachute into the dirt.

Another aspect of humility is accepting the fact that a plan isn't working and being willing to change it, rather than doing what Willink calls "riding your parachute into the dirt."

“It’s a saying we have that comes from parachuting,” Willink explained. “We’ll have guys who pull their parachute, and there’s a problem. The parachute doesn’t open, and they’ll keep messing with that parachute until they hit the ground. They’ll ignore their reserve parachute. So we call that riding your parachute into the dirt.”

When you start executing a plan, you have to be able to change it if it’s not working the way you want. Don’t ride your parachute into the dirt. When something isn’t working, you have to try something else. You need to be able to pull out a different plan.

A decision-making trick.

Having humility doesn’t mean you aren’t confident in your decisions. But the minute you make a decision that you think is 100% right? It means you're not open to any more input. You’re not going to change your decision.

Effective decision making requires humility. As Willink put it, “I have no problem changing a decision I’ve made. I have no problem saying, 'hey, the plan I came up with isn’t a good plan. Let's make some adjustments.'”

But it can be challenging to make decisions knowing you might have to change them. Willink had this piece of advice: “I don’t sit around gathering all the information so I can make one big decision. Instead, I make small decisions, and I make them quickly.” Using this technique, wrong decisions aren’t as risky, because they’re smaller decisions. It makes it easier to pull back and make the necessary adjustments so you have a solid working plan again.

Check your ego at the door.

What if the people around you are the ones with the big egos, like your boss, for example, or the people you’re managing? According to Willink, in these situations the key is to always put your own ego in check. “So I’ve got a boss with a big ego,” he said. “He wants to win. Well, then, I’ll let him win, and I’ll give him the credit. He’ll love me for it, and he’ll make sure I have everything I need to get my job done.”

It’s no different when it comes to those under you in the chain of command. As Willink put it, “So they have big egos. They think they know how to do things. You say to them, hey, Aaron, let me know how you want to make it happen. And then you let them make it happen.”

The problem doesn’t lie in the egos of the people around you. It’s your own ego that gets upset when your boss wants the credit even though you’re the one running the project. It’s your ego that’s the problem when someone under you says they know a better way to do things. You’re the one thinking, how can you know anything when you’ve only been here for three years?

At the end of the day, the only one you can fix is you. And you can make this fix, by putting your own ego in check.

Takeaways.

Humility is the core characteristic that enables you to make the crucial adjustments necessary to be a good leader. It’s only when you’re humble enough to acknowledge that you might be wrong that you can adjust your decisions so they work the way you want.

And when, as a leader, you have humility, you know it’s never about other people’s egos. Other people might have big egos, but that’s their problem. If you have a problem with other people’s egos, you need to keep your own ego in check.