As I stepped out for my long run on Sunday, I tried to remember to start slowly. As the great ultra-runner, Dean Karnazes says, “Start slowly, then slow down from there.”
I ran slowly past the high school where I taught for over 30 years. The sign out front welcomed students back and told them they had been missed.
Ah, yes. They have been missed, to be sure.
My mind wandered once again to some of the students I have known.
As teenagers, many students place a priority on fitting in, on becoming part of a social group. For some students, the struggle to fit in was all-consuming, while some students made being a natural leader seem effortless.
I remember one young man, in particular, Matt. Students naturally looked up to Matt. He was captain of the Quiz Bowl team I coached and an excellent student, bright and inquisitive.
Matt was the epitome of quiet confidence. He was able to take suggestions from his teammates and quickly synthesize the team’s best response. He showed grace under pressure, always calm, never flustered.
I think, however, what made Matt a good captain was his ability to get everyone on the team involved, to make them feel appreciated.
I tried to consider the characteristics that made students good leaders. The first trait that came to mind was, coincidentally, my word for this year, humility.
Students who were natural leaders were curious, and therefore, teachable. They listened to others before consolidating their responses, they drew other students in and made them feel valued and listened to, and they were determined to find solutions for problems.
They didn’t give up easily or blame others for a poor outcome. They readily accepted responsibility for their actions.
They were humble.
Research shows humble leaders are the most effective, developing coalitions and making strategic allies by enhancing beneficial relationships.
So, why do we tend to choose leaders who are not humble?
Time after time, we choose the extroverts, the flamboyant, the self-absorbed. These leaders have only their own best interests at heart, not those of their followers. They are often incompetent, irresponsible, and blinded by their own hubris.
Most religions encourage their adherents to adopt a humble attitude. “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians.
The Christian writer C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Muslims prostrate themselves when they pray to embody their humble perspective toward God.
Humility is one of the most valued traits in Judaism and pride one of the worst sins. In the Jewish tradition, the greater the man’s stature, the more humble he is likely to be.
Buddhists consider humility the result of enlightenment and believe an open mind begins with humility.
If humility is so beneficial, then why are so many leaders in business, finance, and politics such arrogant jerks?
It may have something to do with the perception that humility is associated with weakness or lack of ambition. Braggarts tend to draw a lot of attention to themselves and their accomplishments. Humble leaders don’t feel the need to do that.
There may be a disconnect, then, between perception and reality. Brash, obnoxious bullies get the attention, but modest leaders get results. Conceit and self-importance may command notice, but humility makes things happen.
For effective teachers, the first order of business each year is to demonstrate to their students that everyone in the classroom is on the same “team”, that together students and teachers will work toward success, and that everyone in the class is important and needs to contribute.
A battle for “control” between teachers and students every school day would make life miserable for both. Successful teachers must exhibit humility.
Good leaders know this.
Matt learned it early in life.
He was confident enough to admit he didn’t have all the answers, that he needed his teammates’ contributions for everyone to win.
And together, they usually got it right.
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