Overlooked attribute of military leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jeffrey J. Kotz

Humility in military leadership is not something that is inculcated in our Professional Military Education (PME)… however, it should be.  Humility is not just an attribute of the virtuous; it’s an essential trait which enables leaders to effectively manage their subordinates.  Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “humility” as “freedom from pride or arrogance”. It is this freedom from egoism which allows a leader to clearly see the path of leadership which serves the greater purpose, rather than serving one’s own self-interest.  When I asked my 10-year old son to describe humility he stated, “It’s when you let people make fun of you” (humiliated). There’s a clear difference between humility (acting in the best interest of others on a larger scale, setting aside one’s own interests) and being humiliated (becoming the proverbial chump).

When leaders: act arrogantly and pay attention only to information that conforms to their views; take all the credit and none of the blame and refuse to apologize for their mistakes, they condition us to believe that success can be achieved without setting aside our own personal preferences and politics.

Unpretentious leaders are much more likely to build solid connections with their subordinates. A leader demonstrating modesty by being consistently approachable, helpful, tolerant, sensitive and accepting, will in turn prepare subordinates to empower themselves to take initiative without undue concern for offending their leader’s ego. Being a humble leader doesn’t mean you’re a wishy-washy chump, it means that you’re spearheading a team and recognize the importance of the collaboration.

Below are some examples that I have observed over the course of my military experience, which demonstrate effective humble leadership:

- Continual improvement:  successful leaders do not believe mission success (or failure) is inevitable. They constantly monitor their progress. They routinely revise and update plans, as new information becomes available or relevant. They acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers, and ask for genuine feedback. They empower their subordinates to take the initiative and recognize the earned accomplishments which result.

- Maintaining a professional demeanor:  without humility a leader tends to be defensive and reactionary, often exacerbating any situation which has a potential to go awry. The humble leader will remain professional and proactive because every time the team gets sidetracked by petty reactions, they lose focus; and unnecessary friction slows the team’s momentum. By treating people professionally you set an example, leading to reduced tension and motivating your team to adapt their approach as needed. Instead of exhibiting negative behavior, they choose to emulate your methods of promoting healthy resolutions and achieving progress.

- Regarding authority:  humility doesn’t diminish a leader’s command or their influence over operations, if practiced properly. Humility allows leaders more flexibility in how they exercise their power and draws respect from their subordinates; For example, a leader might employ democratic methods while planning an operation, encouraging subordinates to contribute ideas before coming to a consensus decision prior to execution. However, during the ops execution phase, the leader may need to be decisive and provide subordinates with a single point of authority with clear lines of communication. Then, while conducting the debrief, an effective leader should; solicit feedback from subordinates, be the first person to highlight other team members’ contributions as essential to the operation’s success, and most importantly, take personal responsibility for any failures.

Being confident in your own leadership abilities does not preclude you from showing humility. Being approachable to your team members is much more crucial than touting your own successes.  Leading a team effectively means inviting everyone on your team to bring their “A Game”, every time.  A leader who is willing to give credit where credit is due, and who personally owns the failures of their team will give subordinates the confidence to strive harder and attempt more without fear of failure or reprisal that can occur when egos get involved in the process. Humble leadership enables you to form connections with your subordinates which strengthens your teamwork, and empowers the individuals who work for you.