A Tale of Two Leaders (why humility matters)

After sitting 8 hours in the cold to watch the Broncos lose to the Ravens in a game in which they inexplicably abandoned everything that got them there in the first place, I was in NO mood to watch, listen, or read anything about football in general and the Broncos in particular.  (Seriously, we practically had a media blackout in the house – we only caught the end of the Atlanta/Seahawks game because it was on in the store where we were shopping for a treadmill.  But I digress.)

Despite my desire to avoid any and all stories about the Broncos, I couldn’t help but click on this  article when I saw it on Yahoo!  It describes the post-game meeting between Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis.  (Another great article on the story can be found here.)  What struck me as I read about it was how difficult it had to be for Peyton to be there…to wait for what had to be forever to say goodbye to a respected competitor.  And the feeling of respect was mutual (the Peter King SI.com article quotes Lewis as saying he was missing a “great warrior”).  This was humility in action – leading by example, respectfully wishing luck to a longtime rival.  Peyton Manning is a leader.  Not in words, but in behavior.

Let’s contrast that with the debacle of the Lance Armstrong fall from grace.  Using his stature and his money and his power, he bullied and sued anyone who dared to speak the truth about him.  He was the face of an amazing foundation that gave a lot of people with cancer hope and support…and yet his actions said anything BUT leadership.  During is “apology”, he showed no contrition and a distinct unwillingness to hold himself accountable for his actions over the years.  Rather than show humility, he showed defiance.  As Dan Wetzel wrote in his article about the event, “After the first session the only question left unanswered is how he ever found so many friends to stab in the back in the first place.”

Humility is a powerful tool in the leadership toolbox – not as a manipulation element; rather, as a real and honest emotion that leaders can and should display in times challenge and in triumph.  A humble leader is a leader people want to follow.  A humble leader understands his limitations, and welcomes the contributions of others. When mistakes are made (and they will be made), a humble leader accepts them and learns from them – regardless of who made them.  Peyton Manning, through his actions away from the spotlight, shows a humility that people respect. (Except for maybe New England fans, but that’s their problem. But I digress…again.)

Despite the power of humility, too many leaders take the Lance Armstrong route – pretending they’re invincible, bullying others when they dare speak the truth, deny and cover up mistakes in an effort to remain “perfect”.  This can work…for awhile.  But what happens when the story unravels?  Suddenly, those who followed that leader simply walk away, cursing the lie they defended for so long.

Think about where you land on the humility continuum.  Are you willing to wait for an hour after a crushing loss to congratulate your competitor?  Or are you offering hollow apologies in an effort to protect your personal gain?  Where do you want to be?  The choice you make will impact your ability to lead.

I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility. I don’t mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them.
― John Ruskin

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