Humble Leadership

Posted March 26, 2020

Humility: What Leaders Can Learn from Chimpanzees

Instead of learning the importance of humility while ascending to leadership, Doug Guthrie learned it on the way down and out.

Guthrie teaches leadership at Apple University, but his ascent to Apple followed a pride-induced fall.  Guthrie is a smart, hard-working and capable leader who served as the dean of the George Washington School of Business.  His tenure at GWSB should have been a long and fruitful one, but it wasn’t.  Why?  As Guthrie confesses, “the painful reality is that I lacked the important element of humility when I walked through the doors at GWSB. I thought I knew everything when I really had much to learn.”

Guthrie’s rise and fall exemplifies the precarious place of leaders.  In order to rise, leaders have to stand out.  But when a leader stands out too much, or stands out by stepping on others, the leader risks being ousted.  Followers want a leader who is strong and smart, but strength and smarts alone is not enough.  Followers want a leader who makes room for others and to sometimes take the role of a servant.  It turns out that followers best respond to leaders who display a threefold combination of traits: strength, smarts, and service.

Without a humble willingness to serve, strong and smart leaders do not last very long.  Such was the case for Pimu, the alpha leader of a chimpanzee troupe near Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania.  Anthropologists had observed Pimu rule the troupe for several years.  His reign was marked by brutal force and intimidation, but after he chased away his second-in-command one morning in 2011, four of his subordinates took advantage of his isolation.  They banded together and killed him.

As Jane Goodall observed, male chimpanzees gain alpha leadership status by displaying strength, smarts and service.  No chimp is going to follow a leader who is weak.  But when the leader relies too much on strength behaviors (such as intimidation and physical assault) and not enough on servant-like behaviors (including deference acts such as grooming subordinates), his followers can revolt if they see an opening.  As Pimu and Doug Guthrie both learned, it turns out that too much strength and not enough service is not very smart for leaders.

Great leaders incorporate plenty of humility into their leadership style.  Leaders should embrace a humble approach for three reasons:

  1. Humility puts God first. Without humility, a leader will get puffed up on pride and squeeze God out of the picture altogether.  The biblical account of Satan’s fall (Isaiah 14) serves as a warning for any leader foolish enough to think life is a story about him or her.  Great leaders place themselves within a much bigger, more important life narrative.
  2. Humility is the antidote for pride. The downside of success is that for most of us it only takes a small amount to make us susceptible to pride.  And pride is the downfall of many a leader.  Pride puffs up and makes us think we can do no wrong, which is why the prideful person makes many foolish moves.  The antidote to pride is humility.  Humility shrinks the ego and protects us from the perils of pride.
  3. Humility is open to wisdom. No matter how strong or smart you are, you will never be strong enough and smart enough for what life will eventually throw at you. The prideful leader foolishly assumes they have what it takes no matter what.  In contrast, the humble leader proactively seeks out wisdom today in order to be better prepared for tomorrow’s challenges.  The humble leader also builds alliances and relies on collaboration, forming partnerships that will help the leader bring more resources to future challenges.

Before closing, let’s be clear that you can overdo humility.  True humility does not underestimate strength and smarts – it rightly assesses those capacities.  Whereas pride sees no limit to one’s ability, overdone humility sees too many limits to what the leader has to offer.  Underestimating leads to holding back, robbing those you lead of what you have to offer.  True leadership requires you to show up as a smart, savvy, influential person while also humbly making room for others.

Where are you when it comes to humility?  Do you lead from humility, or do you overwhelm people with your strength and smarts?  Or perhaps you mistakenly underestimate your capacity and rob others of what you have to offer.  Who’s a leader you’ve seen do humility right?  Leave your comments below.

NOTE: this post is an edited excerpt from a lengthier article written for The Table at Biola University.