This post is the 5th in a series of letters written by the mysterious Uncle Josh to his nephew Simon on the subject of management and leadership. Who these individuals are, I have no way to know. The letters simply appeared in a box on my doorstep one evening many years ago. I have never shared them with the public until now, but they have taught me virtually everything I know about leadership, though I still have much work to do in applying these lessons to my life.
My Dear Nephew Simon,
Thank you for your most recent letter. I do always enjoy hearing about your reflections and observations as a new manager. Keep thinking. Keep watching. Reflection is an important tool and habit for leaders and must be cultivated and practiced at every stage of your career. Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The same might be said of the unexamined career.
You asked me a good and interesting question: Why do the worst bosses often think they are the very best? It is a fascinating and yet sad reality that many people in positions of authority in organizations think they are really great at their job in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Turnover is high, morale is low, and yet they think that they are the very epitome of great leadership. The problem, Simon, in a word, is pride. A proud leader is blinded to their own incompetence by an exaggerated view of their own importance.
Therefore, if you don’t mind, I would like to share with you a few thoughts in this letter about the importance of cultivating a humble-heart as a leader. Humility is often wrongly thought of as a weakness in leadership. It is not. The best leaders and best managers have always been those with a humble estimation of themselves. This makes them approachable, teachable, and concerned about others – three of the most critical competencies of a good manager. It is the arrogant who are weak and ineffective. “Conceit,” as someone said, “is God’s gift to little men.”
Humble men and women are approachable. You can get near them. The proud are always looking to prove they are better than those around them. They think they are better than others, and unconsciously look for opportunities to prove it. They’re defensive and easily irritated by anyone who disagrees with them. Managers need to be approachable people; therefore a humble heart is critical.
The humble are also the most teachable people, and all great managers have a lot to learn. But the proud think they know it all already. They’re never wrong, or so they think. Pride is like reading with blinders on. Nothing gets through. All real learning demands humility. Therefore, cultivating a humble heart is the fastest and best way to accumulate the knowledge you will need as a leader.
The humble, finally, are concerned about others. The proud care only about themselves. But humble managers care about the people who work for them, the patients they care for, and the business they run. The humble become tuned-in to the physical, emotional, and professional needs of those around them. As the brilliant Madeleine L ‘Engle put it “Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.”
As you begin your management career, Simon, keep these things in mind. You mentioned near the end of your letter that you feel like you are in over your head. That’s good. It tells me your head is in the right place to lead. This reminds me of a quote by C.S. Lewis from one of his Chronicles of Narnia books, Prince Caspian. I have it underlined in my copy. Here it is:
“Welcome, Prince,’ said Aslan. ‘Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?’ I – I don’t think I do, Sir,’ said Caspian. ‘I am only a kid.’ Good,’ said Aslan. ‘If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been proof that you were not.”
Feeling overwhelmed at times, and unworthy of the great privilege of leadership, is one of the great evidences that you are doing exactly what you were meant to do. It’s a bit of a paradox I know, but the way up is generally found on the way down. I’ll close with Augustine’s words “You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”
Your affectionate Uncle, Josh
Photo by José Antonio Caballero Machí on Unsplash
Last modified: April 29, 2023