Leadership and Humility


In a recent post, “Leadership and Listening,” I distinguished between “false” leaders and “real” leaders:

“False leaders are the ones, after all, that ride in on all the hype and bravado, steering themselves towards their own vision of glory. Real leaders come in with humility and turn other people into leaders while quietly going about and changing the world.”

This may have read as flippant, but there is credible evidence to back it up. In a wonderful book on studies of companies that have gone far beyond “good” to become truly “great,” demonstrating sustained and substantial performance, Good to Great, Jim Collins notes that every single “good-to-great company had Level 5 leadership during the pivotal transition years” when they began experiencing sustained growth.

Level 5 leadership, according to Collins, is the pinnacle of leadership, as demonstrable by remarkable results. Interestingly, they stand in stark contrast to the type of leader that typically makes headlines. They “display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated” in addition to displaying “a workmanlike diligence—more plow horse than show horse.”

In other words, the leaders that lead their organizations to the greatest success are those who get down to hard work with humility. This provides us with a useful heuristic for determining quality of leadership, whether in ourselves or in others: who takes credit for the accomplishments of an organization or team? If a “leader” steps in to toot his or her own horn, that leader isn’t likely to be very effective.

I recommend picking up Good to Great and reading it, not only for its lessons on leadership, but for its implications for school reform. I will bring up some more salient points from the book and its relation to viewing a school as an ecosystem in a future post.

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