I have been puzzled in recent weeks by colleagues congratulating me on my humility. What are these folks talking about? People who knew me years ago would definitely be amused by that. At best, I was described as “Sweet but Stern.” At my boldest, I was told that I could terrorize entire cities. Community leaders had a white-knuckled grasp on their chairs when I tersely announce my intention to speak off-the-record. Not even a voice from the back of the room calling out, “Oh ho, this should be good!” slowed me down.
If my in-your-face moments weren’t expressions of humility, neither were the times of apologetic hesitation when overcome by waves of worry and dread. Some call that phenomenon a lack of self-confidence, common to aspiring women leaders. I prefer to think of it as being self-protective, like the instinct to duck when someone yells “Incoming!” Most women are trained from early childhood to nurture, to be kind, and to think of others before themselves. To be perceived as otherwise is to lay ourselves open to the denigrating charges of being bossy, cruel, mean, and b*tchy. We pick our battles depending on how much of that we can withstand on a daily basis.
Women struggle to make bold moves with impact without losing the nurturing instincts instilled in us. Given the small percentage of CEOs, senators, judges, and corporate board members who are women, it’s a good guess that their uncommon boldness propelled them into these roles. Yet, their nurturing abilities must have been sensed in order to offset the B*tchy Effect. Successful women integrate both boldness and nurturing with an emphasis on the former and a faint whisper on the latter. Too much visibility can lead to negative stereotyping: women are weak and emotional, women aren’t equipped for technology jobs, women are best equipped for nurturing so they should stay at home with the kids.
Until these past few weeks, I’ve not heard the nurturing aspect of women leaders referred to admiringly as “humility”. While the two character traits are virtually identical in terms of people skills, the “humility” label belongs to men. It’s no accident that philosophers who address humility and leadership have historically been male. Few women leaders need advice like this:
Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Humility is thinking more of others. ~ Rick Warren
Famous men throughout history have underscored the benefits of humility.
It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.
~ Mahatma Gandhi
These quotes are words of wisdom, guides for leadership. Absent are any denigration or name calling of those who are not humble. That leaves the door wide open for the lack of humility among leadership today. The consequences are not career threatening and civility, never mind humility, has become optional or even counterproductive. Given our current nationalism, populism, and tribal politics, strident self-interest has become the new normal. Search for articles about leadership and humility in Forbes Magazine and the Harvard Business Review and you’ll need to go back a few years to find them.
Despite the current revolt against humility, it remains an ongoing theme, although with terminology more acceptable to contemporary culture. Primary among those terms is “authenticity”. Being authentic has many definitions, but the bottom line is to be one of the people, equal to and not above them. Authenticity is often closely association with giving, not just taking, and implies nurturing, humility, and empowering others. These traits are seen not only as progress, but as the wave of the future.
As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others. ~ Bill Gates
Gates’ words of wisdom sound prophetic, but echo those of ancient Chinese philosophers who are as relevant today as they were more than two thousand years ago.
I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men. ~ Lao-Tsu
Add technology to our divisive culture, I wonder if humility, authenticity, and interpersonal skills will become extinct. They are disappearing in a flurry of tweets, likes, and anonymous comments. No wonder that corporations recruiting at a job fair at the College of Engineering and Computer Science where I was the Research Coordinator took me aside and begged me to instill soft skills in the students. Although 160 characters seem to dictate communication, the reality is that we’re more interconnected than ever. Techies don’t spend their days in isolation any more. They interact with teams, consumers, vendors, and suppliers around the world. Yet their education and socialization didn’t include people skills and the demand for them borders on desperation.
As I write this, the answer to my original question is emerging: why am I being given the label “humility”? The reason is embedded in our rapidly changing culture. The powerful leader who is also humble comes as a pleasant surprise whenever encountered. The empathy and trustworthiness, the authenticity and humility of that leader are now aspirational traits.
An increasingly rare commodity, humility’s link to gender is loosening. Given the supply and demand, nurturing and humility are converging. It’s time for women to be aggressive in showing the true nature of their leadership. The beauty and power of their experience lies in their ability to integrate bold and nurturing and blend them into leadership with humility and authenticity. Who better to envision, create, and teach the leadership paradigm of the future than the women who achieved that surprising feat?
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