Shortly after he took over as the president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Booker T. Washington was walking in an exclusive section of town when he was stopped by a wealthy White woman. Not knowing the famous Mr. Washington by sight, she asked if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping wood for her.
Because he had no pressing business at the moment, Mr. Washington smiled, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to do the humble chore she had requested. When he was finished, he carried the logs into the house and stacked them by the fireplace. A little girl recognized him and later revealed his identity to the lady.
The next morning the embarrassed woman went to see Mr. Washington in his office at the Institute and apologized profusely. “It’s perfectly alright madam,” he replied. “Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it’s always a delight to do something for a friend.” She shook his hand and warmly reassured him that his meek and gracious attitude had endeared him and his work to her heart.
Not long afterward, she showed her admiration by persuading some wealthy acquaintances to join her in donating thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute.
Have you ever had the privilege of running across a leader like this? Refreshing, isn’t it? Unfortunately, we live in a culture that’s turned toxic on many levels and the most basic virtues of leadership are diminished before our eyes on a daily basis. I submit, we can and should be better.
John Maxwell was right when he said, “If leaders can move past arrogance and work toward humility, they can become the very best.” And this is one of the greatest challenges I see in leadership today. When you see leadership as a right and not as a privilege, and when servant leadership is beneath you, then your pride will always hold you back.
In this environment in which we live, is it possible to recover one of the essential ingredients to good leadership that’s found in humility? I believe so. Here are a few ways.
We must model servant leadership
The most important lesson you will learn as a leader is that it’s not about you. Your capacity to lead is proportional to your capacity to serve your people. This is what allows you to be comfortable in your own skin and lead with humility. Your greatest satisfaction as a leader is found in what you can do for others, not in what they do for you.
We must remember our beginnings
I see this often with leaders. In the beginning of their careers they are finding their way and working their way up. But at some point, they forget the past, they forget the struggle, they forget the sacrifices made that got them where they are. Now they enter into a sense of entitlement having “paid their dues” so they believe that they can behave any way they want. In order to recover the virtue of humility will require a sense of remembering and gratitude in recognition of where you are today. No matter how far you’ve come, be grateful and thankful and remember it hasn’t given you the right to act like a jerk.
We must remain teachable
If you are going to last as a leader you must remain teachable. The pace of information and technology in today’s global economy requires it of you. To be sure, there are bedrock principles of leadership that are timeless. But your ability to remain relevant is only guaranteed as you commit to being teachable and not falling back on what you learned in years past. Leading with humility begins the day you realize how little you know and as you commit to improving yourself daily.
We’ve seen the abuses of power and the destruction it leaves. Perhaps now it’s time to see a return to humility in leadership.