Balancing Humility and Hubris


As you ascend the ladder of leadership, you’ll eventually face this quandary: the necessity of balancing humility and hubris.

It’s been written that it takes a unique type of person to campaign for the U.S. presidency. Our most extraordinary presidents have been models of humility. At the same time, you must have an outsized ego, some level of self-love, and massive ambition to beat others in becoming the most powerful person in the world. Think about this—people raise $200,000,000, campaign for two years (more like a decade), and speak to tens of millions of people at thousands of rallies crisscrossing the nation to massive adulation…because they’re humble? Yeah, I don’t think so. Aiming for that level of leadership requires a certain amount of hubris, too.

Most of us aren’t running for U.S. president, but many of us are “running” for something (some of us are also running from something, but that’s a different blog for a different day). As your career builds and you begin to earn more senior leadership positions, you will demonstrate behaviors that some—many—will interpret very differently.

I’ve been in enough leadership positions to know the classic bell curve applies to how people will view you. Some will fawn over you. Be suspicious—they’re sycophants. Conversely, some will hate everything you do. They’re perpetually envious and energy-suckers. They will always suspect your motives and actions. I don’t suggest you ignore these people entirely, but don’t let them get to you.

Focus instead on the middle, the vast majority who can become your champions. This group isn’t less talented or insightful; they’re simply waiting and watching—suspending judgment. They generally want you to be successful, and they often understand it’s a hard job, the very reason they don’t want it. They also make up about 80 percent of the audience, team, division, and organization whose support, confidence, and trust you need to gain.

Some tips to consider:

Understand the “tall poppy” syndrome. This is the cultural tendency to criticize highly successful people and cut them down to size. You will always experience people who do this. Carefully consider how much time and energy you’re willing to invest (at the expense of something else) to try to win them over. Are they winnable? Are the rewards and risks worth the outsized effort?

Declare your intent. Clearly state your intentions and repeat often. Share the “why” behind the “what” whenever possible. The clearer you are—and the more you align your intent with what you write, say, and do—the less room you provide people to misinterpret, guess, and gossip. Stephen M.R. Covey describes this as one of the 13 Behaviors of High-Trust Leaders.

Lift others along the way. Sometimes to earn a leadership role, others will be denied and feel dejected, passed over, or even jealous. This shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. I know many fine people (me) who have jealous tendencies. As you’re climbing up, throw a rope down and lift them up with you. Encourage them to climb above you. If you’re confident in both your character and competence, your shoulders can handle some weight. Great leaders earned their positions, and they also recognize that if they look back and nobody is following them, they’re not really leading. They’re just posing.

Dance with the one who brung ya.  You didn’t earn your leadership positions on your own. Look around: many people coached you, taught you, and showed patience and confidence in you—likely more than you know or acknowledge. Don’t abandon them. Engage and show loyalty to those who believed in you and will continue to be your confidantes and sounding boards.

Demonstrating genuine humility is vital to being and staying a principle-centered leader. Remember, humble leaders are more concerned with what is right than being right.

Continue your leadership journey with a more in-depth look at The 4 Essential Roles of leadership by registering to attend a complimentary webcast.

About the Author

Scott Miller

Scott Miller is a 25-year associate of FranklinCovey and serves as Senior Advisor, Thought Leadership. Scott hosts the world’s largest and fastest-growing podcast/newsletter devoted to leadership development, On Leadership. Additionally, Scott is the author of the multi-week Amazon #1 New Releases, Master Mentors: 30 Transformative Insights From Our Greatest Minds, Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow, and the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Everyone Deserves a Great Manager: The 6 Critical Practices for Leading a Team. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and three sons.

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