Lead with Humility: Two Models for Leadership

Any honest pursuit of excellence is going to produce humility—or at least the opportunity for it. To keep pressing ahead and breaking new ground as we lead our teammates and clients means we have to look again at what drives real leadership. Ryan Cardwell, a senior developer and member of the North Star leadership team, gives us his quiet, compelling take on what it means to Lead with Humility.

Lead … with humility. I know that on the surface, these concepts may seem completely disconnected, but if we can look more deeply at their relationship we can see how they work in synergy to produce an ideal harmony.

Untempered leadership engenders an overbearing, tyrannical, arrogant, distant, cold environment. The people who suffer under that kind of unmitigated control usually respond with fear, resentment, and conflict. This is not an environment that makes a truly successful workplace.

My dad was a good example of a different kind of leadership for me as I was growing up. He rarely raised his voice and was not overbearing, but he had a lot of respect from his family and friends. He was all about doing the work that needed to be done, with a verbal reinforcement every now and then. He led by doing.

Humility helps us remember that each of us are humans that fail and make mistakes. We make them early and often. True humility requires us to think of others first, and be looking out for their needs. There’s really no end to the practical ways we can express humility, but I want to offer one way to think about this value in action:

Listen first, and well.

When we do speak from a posture of true humility, we are saying what is true with love. We are also, by the way, able to receive criticism with that very same grace! That kind of honesty and gentleness are both what characterizes humility and what it engenders.

At the same time, we should remember that listening well does not cancel our responsibility to speak up. So often, our clients are looking to us for guidance. Silence when we should say something—even if we do not know the answer and we need to go find it—is not true humility or servant leadership.

Serving Those We Lead

A commitment to servant leadership creates an environment where followers are inspired to accomplish goals together, hand-in-hand, instead of being forced into compliance. It goes against the conventional and natural thought that the people should serve the leader, but instead, the leaders should serve the people.

I cannot think of a more remarkable picture of this than the account of Jesus Christ washing the feet of his disciples. He chose to do this not long before he was crucified. Surely we can understand if his thoughts and actions at that point would be for himself and what he was about to endure. He did not command them to serve, (though I believe that was his masterful intent) but he inspired them to follow his example.

So much of leadership happens without words. If servant leadership is essentially characterized by identifying and meeting the needs of others, we need to know what they are. We need to give full attention to others on our teams, and especially to our clients so we can really hear their real problems.

One of the most hard-won fruits of holding these responsibilities of listening and speaking well in tension is clarity. When we listen well and speak well for the good of others, we are pursuing the clarity that will most help our team and our clients.

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