The Most Difficult Leadership Question

Sam Rainer

June 19, 2010

I recently spent some time at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD for my PhD program. A retired Colonel gave a lecture to my cohort. What he taught is one of the best leadership lessons on humility I’ve ever heard. Allow me to share the highlights of his lecture.

It’s the hardest leadership question to answer: Am I humble?

Humility is the most difficult leadership trait to determine about ourselves. And pride is the most dangerous leadership trait. Arrogance is the root leadership problem. Our sin nature propels us to an excessive and unhealthy focus on ourselves.

It’s the quintessential leadership struggle. We stand on a sliding scale somewhere between healthy humility and unhealthy pride. Even at our best, determining where we are on this scale is tough. We almost always believe we are more humble than we really are. We rarely recognize our pride until it’s too late.

Fortunately, there are three key questions to ask to reduce the potential for pride to puff up.

Do you know your job, and are you striving to learn more? This question involves competence. Quite frankly, do you know what you’re doing? Too many leaders fake it. Too many leaders do not want to swallow pride and ask for help. Too many leaders fear looking small by admitting they do not understand something. A lack of competence causes many leaders to guide an organization or church into unnecessarily risky waters.

Are you willing to sacrifice your career to do right thing? This question involves courage. Leaders must be willing to make the hard and right decision no matter what the cost. Too many leaders make safe (but wrong) decisions because they fear personal repercussions. Integrity means making the tough decisions and taking the heat. Integrity means verbally admitting fault when you’re wrong.

Do you care about your followers as much as yourself? This question involves compassion. Do you love the people you’re leading? If you don’t, then why lead them? And why would they trust you? Don’t leave unresolved conflict with your followers. Don’t get offended every time a direct report corrects you. Don’t be resistant to help from teams you manage. Be concerned about people on your leadership periphery—those that are on the outskirts of your leadership oversight. Do you know their names? Be a human leader, even if it’s not on your job description. Hob knob with quarterbacks and coaches—that’s important—but never forget the name of the person carrying the water bottles.

The personal virtue of humility is a constant battle, but the most important one. Humility is a daily decision and a lifetime commitment. Leaders are doomed to short-term, arrogant decisions without competence, courage, and compassion. We can fool ourselves by losing focus on who we really are. When the aura of the position gets in the way of serving, we are no longer fit for the position. Ultimately, we are merely pots. God is the Potter. He has ultimate control. And we should lead like we believe it.

3 comments on “The Most Difficult Leadership Question”

  1. Sam,
    This is one of the best articles on the subject of leadership essential characteristics. I also believe humility is a primary defining characteristic of a true leader, but it is most difficult to get past the facade to determine of measure its authenticity. At best I think we must instill “chosen accountability” within the DNA of the church or organizational culture so that most leaders will hold themselves to a higher standard. The questions offered by the retired Colonel are excellent for mentors and leadership groups to ask of upcoming leaders. Thanks for the article.

  2. Love this post Sam. Especially the “This question involves __.” Great way to frame it back.

  3. Sam Rainer says:

    Thanks Daniel and Tom!

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