Why Humility is Essential to Effective Leadership
Written by Jocko Willink
December 30, 2021
Think about someone who’s a successful leader. What’s the first word that comes to mind?
Chances are, that word isn’t humility. People usually describe leaders with words like forward-looking and inspiring.
So it might surprise you to learn that humility is essential for effective leadership. In fact, it's the most important characteristic a leader can have.
Humility in leadership
Jocko Willink was a Navy SEAL commander, leading his men into some of the most intense battles in the Iraq War. According to him, a leader cannot survive long-term without humility: “If you don’t have humility, it’s going to bite you. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not even next year. But it will come back to bite you.”
You must cultivate humility in yourself—and in the people you put into leadership roles. Of course, you want people who will work hard, and you want people who want to win. But a person who makes decisions that hurt your company because those decisions are a win for them? You don’t need that.
Jokco says, “When I was putting people in leadership positions on the SEAL team, 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
A key aspect of humility is accepting the fact that a plan isn't working and being willing to change it, rather than doing what Jocko calls "riding your parachute into the dirt."
“It’s a saying we have that comes from parachuting,” Jocko explains. “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. Don’t just keep trying to force it to happen exactly the way you want. Try something else, even if that means pulling out a different plan.
As Jocko puts 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.'”
When that happens, a good leader doesn't worry about how they'll look if they change their mind. They just try to execute the job the best way possible and check their ego at the door.
A trick to help you make decisions
Having humility doesn’t mean you are unsure of your decisions. You should have confidence in what you decide; after all, you made that choice for a reason.
But the minute you make a decision you think is 100% right? That means you're not open to input anymore. You’re not going to change your mind or your plan if anything goes wrong.
Effective decision making requires you to remain open to input and change if needed (a.k.a. stay humble). But that can create a level of uncertainty that—for some people—makes it hard to make a decision at all.
Jocko gives some great advice to overcome this decision paralysis: “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 also smaller decisions. It's easier to pull back and adjust until you have a solid working plan again.
Check your ego at the door
Very few people think we have an ego problem. We're much more likly to think the people around us—like our boss or the people we manage—are the ones with big egos. But even when that's true, the way to lead well is still to put your own ego in check.
Jocko says, “So I’ve got a boss with a big ego. 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 the same with those under your command. “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," Jocko advises.
Why does that work? Because your problem doesn’t lie in the egos of the people around you. True, they might have big egos . . . but that's their problem.
Your problem is that your own ego gets upset when your boss wants the credit for the project you're running. Your ego feels insulted 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. It's not easy, and it may not always feel good at the time. But when you put your ego in check, you demonstrate true humility and become the type of person others want to work with.
That's the irony of humility: when you put your own ego in the backseat and let others drive, people will start thinking of you as a good leader.
Humility is the core characteristic of a good leader. It lets you acknowledge that you might be wrong, so you can change to a workable plan. With humility, you don't have to ride your parachute into the ground. And you don't have to fight other people's egos.
Instead, you can adjust your decisions so they work out for the good of the team and the company. You can take responsibility for the only person you can change—you—and lead well regardless of what other people do.
That's why humility is essential as a leader: because it helps you remain effective, no matter what's happening around you.
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Written by Jocko Willink
December 30, 2021