Humility is a quality we generally think we should cultivate in ourselves, and value personally in leaders.
But it can be more.
Forbes praises humble leadership: “A humble leader is secure enough to recognize his or her weaknesses and to seek the input and talents of others. They don’t trade on hubris (arrogance/pride), nor are they guilty of denigrating their colleagues or competitors to aggrandize themselves. Quietly confident, they inspire others to tap their talents and to seek achievement, all in service to the organization and its mission.”
Jacqueline Novogratz, Chief Executive of the Acumen Fund, told the New York Times: “We talk about listening and leadership; accountability and generosity; humility and audacity. You’ve got to have the humility to see the world as it is — and in our world, working with poor communities, that’s not easy to do — but have the audacity to know why you are trying to make it be different, to imagine the way it could be.”
She links humility to courage and achievement by describing it as a quality that gives a leaders staying power. “You’ve got to be audacious enough to set goals that make you stretch and give you clarity of vision and purpose. But you have to have the humility to know that this work is hard, and that you might not get there. If you start off talking about all the reasons that you’re not going to get there, you’re not going to get there. And so it’s holding that balance of not being reckless, but also having a huge element of fearlessness.”
True humility in leadership comes from deep courage, from aloha
Hawaiians call humility “ha’a ha’a,” meaning a confident and clear sense of self where we understand what we do well, what we don’t do well, and what our correct role is as a citizen/leader. With ha’a ha’a, a leader takes on the tasks that are appropriate, without ego acknowledging excellence and superior skills in followers as well as him or herself. Ha’a ha’a grows out of being pono, or correct in relationships and tasks.
The fierce self-knowledge required to be humble in this way is part of the remarkable gentleness of a leader who lives in aloha. The humility in aloha leadership is well described by the experts I quoted above, and is a common understanding across cultures, not simply in traditional Hawaiian terms.
Obama demonstrates aloha and ha’a ha’a on the election cover of Time Magazine, which quotes him as saying “We have more work to do.”
He demonstrates his ha’a ha’a, humility, by always including community — “WE.” From the beginning he has claimed leadership as part of his supports, not as sole representative. He acknowledges his skills and has reached out for collaboration. Ironically, in a Washington culture where humility is seen as a weakness, the Republicans have abused his willingness to talk by refusing to negotiate, and preening their egos when they stop changes from going forward.
So now, it’s time for everyone to embrace a little humility and aloha, and meet the budget deadline with dignity and practicality, becoming a “we” not an “us-them.” But that’s not generally the capitalist way, which de-emphasizes “we” and pushes “me, me, me (and mine)” forward, whether or not it serves the common good.
To be pono, to lead with aloha means to consider above all the common good.
Humility, ha’a ha’a, is key for leaders who want to innovate, create teams, and lead in service to the organizations and communities their decisions impact. This is not the self-effacing humility of a saint; it is the power of someone who knows his or her strengths and weaknesses, and acts accordingly, for the good of all.
How can we innovate effectively otherwise? Without ha’a ha’a, any action is two steps forward, three steps back.
How can build trust or authenticity or teams otherwise? Without ha’a ha’a, a leader does not have the confidence or self-knowledge to create healthy working relationships, or to be fully present.
The Aloha Leadership path is not only for traditional Hawaiian ways. It is a way of being in the present that can help all of us be better leaders and followers, in the ways and places we are called to lead, and where it is most appropriate (pono) to follow.