Your Humble Servant,

The term “leadership” is relatively new. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word can be traced only as far back as the 19th century.

Today, leadership has become a hot topic. Amazon offers 300,000 books with the word “leadership” in the title. It seems that most everyone wants to be a leader or at least be perceived as one. The leadership status carries panache and demands respect and undoubtedly satisfies one’s ego.

The most frequent question asked when discussing leadership is whether leaders are born or made? The consensus today is that there are indeed some in-born characteristics that predisposes people to become leaders. A recent research by the University of Illinois suggests that leadership is 30 % genetic and 70 % lessons learned by life experiences.

I was awakened to the possibility that I might have some leadership qualities by an incident in my teens. I was in the English Church in Lausanne, Switzerland, during a Christmas service. I noticed that something was “going on” a few benches ahead of me. I went up and noticed that a woman was lying on the floor between two benches and seemed to have fainted. All those around her were looking down at her and doing absolutely nothing! I “took charge.” I asked one man to help me picked her up, and moved her to a small adjoining room. By then she came back to consciousness and asked for a glass of water. I offered to call an ambulance or a physician but she declined, saying that she was feeling much better. Reflecting on the incident, sometime later, it became clear to me that sometimes we do not have a choice but to lead and that we should never assume that others will take responsibility.

There are many traits necessary to be a good leader such as intelligence, courage, competence, empathy, creativity, decisiveness, communication skills.

One that is often ignored is humility. Humility does not mean weakness or lack of resolve. Humility means honesty!

St. Vincent de Paul once said:
“Humility is nothing but truth and pride is nothing but lying.”

Humility makes us more human in recognizing that we don’t have all the answers and therefore it allows us to learn. Humility inspires loyalty.

In a Harvard Business Review article The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders by Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, published in 2014, the authors made a reference to a recent study by Catalyst that found that “humility is one of four critical leadership factors for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included.”

I have had the privilege of getting to know many leaders. None impressed me more that David Finn, the co-founder of the public relations firm of Ruder Finn. He best exemplified the virtue of humility in leadership. He started his company 70 years ago with his best friend Bill Ruder. At one point Ruder and Finn as it was then called was the largest PR firm in the world. He knew, personally heads of states, CEOs of American largest companies, world renowned artists and authors, yet never did I hear him drop a name or pride himself of his many connections. Over the course of close to 20 years, I have seen him in many different circumstances some of which were very difficult. His primary concern was fairness. He truly cared about all his employees and their well-being irrespective of their status in the company.  I have never once seen a modicum of arrogance in his speech or behavior. David was also quick to admit a mistake when he thought he had been wrong. I remember an incident shortly after I joined the firm. I was involved in organizing the 50th anniversary of the firm, and something went wrong with the graphic of a brochure about to be printed. He expressed his displeasure by raising his voice. I was a little upset and took a short walk around the block. As I returned to the office, I was told by many that David was looking for me. When he saw me, in the hall way, he came to me and said: “You were upset.” I pretended I was not so. He said: “No, you WERE upset and it’s my fault and I apologize.” I was impressed and moved by his comments and attitude.

My maternal grandfather, Charles Gabriel Petter was a leader. Born in Bern, Switzerland, the eldest son of 10 children, he helped his mother raise his siblings until he was 18. He then moved to Paris to study engineering. He enlisted in the French army as a foreign legionnaire at the break of WW I and quickly rose to the rank of captain. He proved to be an extraordinary leader.  One day he was ordered to command the execution of ten French sentinels who were caught sleeping on their watch. That was the law. Yet, he refused to obey that command and told his superiors that he would joined the guilty sentinels and be executed with them rather than to obey the command. His determination impressed his superiors and they pardoned all ten sentinels. He thus saved their lives. He never bragged about his accomplishments and was quick to laugh about himself. When invited to be included in the French “Whose Who,” he found the offer amusing and declined. He did however accept the French Legion of Honor.

In 2003, I had the honor to be asked to become the President of the New York Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. I first declined, saying that I was relatively new to the organization and that there were many more qualified candidates than myself. My arguments did not convince anyone, so I accepted the responsibility. That experience did teach me the values of consensus building, collegiality, conflict resolution and the importance of focusing on well-defined goals but I was aware that my fundamental role as, president, would be to serve the membership, the board and the public. Such a perspective does require some humility. 

I have been in the ethics field for 20 years now. I believe that ethics counselors are, in some manner, leaders by the fact that they/we provide guidance, leading people down the correct path or course of action and helping them avoid the pitfalls of ethical lapses.  In resolving ethical dilemmas, we also need a dose of humility. We do the best we can to determine the right course of action by taking the time to examine a situation, to look at all the options and their consequences and then decide. However, we never know for sure if the course of action we recommend is the right one.

I believe, whether by circumstances or immediate necessities, we have been and/or will be called to lead. What kind of a leader are we or shall we be? When that moment comes, maybe it will be helpful to remember Loa Tzu quote on leadership:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.”

P.S. I had a hard time finding a quote on leadership and humility!

Previously published by STRIVE Magazine


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