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Humility: The Most Important Attribute of Leadership

By Josh Hendricks BSN, OCN

October 23, 2023
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Josh Hendricks discusses the importance of humility as a leader as he steps in for Dr. Barbara Schmidtman—vice president of cancer health operations at Corewell Health West, in the latest edition of her monthly leadership series. 

This week I was listening to an interview with a leader I greatly admire, and they were asked what the most important attribute of good leadership is. There are many to pick from and based on this leader’s area of expertise, I expected they would say grit, decisiveness, or even endurance. However, their answer was humility.

To understand humility, it may help to begin with a contrast. One of the antonyms of humility is arrogance. Arrogance is a sense of superiority. It’s origin in an individual may vary, but in the workplace, it is usually anchored in either insecurity, a lack of appreciation for others and the complexity of their work, or both. Arrogance produces other qualities such as stubbornness and a sense of superiority to others. It can also breed jealousy. An arrogant person opens themselves up to the fundamental attribution error—making the mistakes of others appear to be facilitated by their own laziness or ineptitude.

On the other hand, humility is by nature, always looking to learn. It promotes respect for the experience of others, including and even especially subordinates with the expertise a leader may not have. Humility also celebrates success—all success. To a truly humble person, other people’s successes are as welcome to them as their own. Watching Tiger Woods curve a golf ball around a tree onto the green is a delight. Only a jealous or malcontent person would scowl at that kind of skill. That principle applies to leadership. As a leader, when your team is on form, you should recognize and spotlight their success. But where does humility come from?

Where Humility is Rooted

One source of humility comes from an understanding of one’s own inadequacy. I want to be careful to point out, this is not a lack of confidence. Rather, it is a sense of realism rooted in the understanding that there are some problems that are too big for only one person to solve. Like cancer, and the human response to the threat of terminal cancer. As an oncology worker, if you think you can tackle cancer care on your own, you might not yet appreciate the enormity of the task you are up against. Real life, real care, outside of our models, is very complicated. Our best systems have to this day not proven sophisticated enough to match the complexity of the real humans we are asked to care for. Failures are bound to happen.

We are sometimes surprised by failure. I know I am, and I am still afraid of it on some level. But we shouldn’t be. If we never experience failure, we are probably not working on something big enough. The great key to humility is accepting the fact that the problem is enormous, that there is much outside of your control, and that to make any real difference requires putting your heart into what you are doing. So, what does humility look like in practice?

Advice To Consider

In 2019, I attended a conference with some fellow nurses and found I was seated next to the chief nursing officer at my hospital. She was someone who inspired trust and respect from the nearly 3,000 nurses who worked within our hospital system. She also oversaw operations for the hospital and many non-nursing departments. I had noticed she could run a meeting with focus and clarity while listening for 90% of the time. I shared this observation with her and asked how she had learned to listen so well. After a thoughtful pause she answered, “I oversee many spaces that are outside my area of expertise. I have to listen well in order to make good decisions." 

How about you? If you rated the most important leadership qualities, would humility make your list? If not, I hope it will in the future. It is how the mediocre become great and how the great stay teachable enough to become phenomenal.

Josh Hendricks BSN, OCN has worked in health care for more than 15 years, in many roles from Environmental Services, to Sterile Processing, to Nursing and now Leadership. He is currently an operations manager for Corewell Health West Michigan in Grand Rapids, MI. Mr. Hendricks previously earned a bachelor’s of science in Intercultural Studies from Kuyper College before discovering his calling as a nurse. People and culture remain professional fascinations that healthcare provides scope to explore. He has a passion for writing, especially writing that clarifies questions and inspires people to bear their burdens and accomplish their life’s mission.

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