Leaders as Learners: Humility is at the Heart of Great Leadership
Interview with Paulette Ashlin, executive/business coach and Founder/President of Ashlin Associates, LLC.
[Editor’s Note: It was a pleasure to interview Paulette for Leaders as Learners — a series of in-depth interviews with global thought leaders that explore the significance of each of the sixteen principles of the Global Girls Project and their application to women and girls’ empowerment. A veteran business and executive coach, Paulette truly exemplifies humility in her own leadership and approach, consistently modeling a quiet confidence that enables others to shine.]
(Sharon): What does humility mean to you?
(Paulette): It’s a measure of character that differentiates great leaders and great people from the rest. It’s the recognition and acknowledgement that a person is codependent on the world and other people, and the ability to understand that they cannot stand alone, whether in a community or in a business context. It’s understanding that it’s not all about them, and that in order to succeed, they need others. Very arrogant people tend to be super independent and want to go it alone and take the credit. They throw others under the bus. Conversely, humble people are the ones who share the credit and take the blame. The biggest differentiator to me is the acknowledgement that they are part of a bigger system…part of humanity. That’s humility. You can see it at the macro level world-wide. For example, somebody who’s humble understands that they are linked to someone who’s from a lower socioeconomic background all the way up.
Humility is the opposite of arrogance. It is the quality of being modest and respectful. A humble person both recognizes when he or she doesn’t know all the answers and acknowledges that fact. In this way, a humble person is supremely self-confident and secure, overcoming insecurities to acknowledge shortcomings.
(Sharon): Under the ‘command and control’ style of leadership, leaders are often perceived to have high egos — the antithesis of humility. What is the relationship between humility and leadership? How can humility enable us to become more effective leaders in our own lives and communities?
(Paulette): Time and time again, research bears out that the most effective leaders – those who inspire followership — score high on a humility scale. Indeed, the opposite of humility, arrogance, can be a leader’s undoing.
A healthy ego does not mean someone is arrogant. A healthy ego encompasses tremendous self-confidence.
Humble people know when they need help; they look for answers elsewhere; they acknowledge that they’re not always right and are therefore more approachable. They attract more followers because they’re humble…because of the acknowledgement that they’re not supreme. Other people want to follow them, and that’s what makes great leaders – the ability to attract and influence others to “follow” them or their ideas.
(Sharon): Otherwise you’re just leading a concept; you’re not actually influencing others to change. My definition of leadership is the capacity to influence change. If you’re just sticking your stake in the ground and saying, “well, I’m a leader…I have this title,” but you have no followers, no one is listening and nothing is happening as a consequence of that, then your ‘leadership’ is irrelevant.
(Paulette): And great leaders who are humble are also very inquisitive. They ask lots of questions and are open to feedback. They are approachable and want to be respected.
One of the questions I always ask when I interview people for a 360-degree (assessment) on behalf of a client is, “On a continuum of arrogance to humility, where would you put that person?” I get all types of answers. The best leaders are the ones who get something in the middle and it’s appropriate for the environment. They’re not so humble that they get walked all over, but they’re not arrogant. They’re supremely self-confident and know how to maneuver and go up and down the continuum based on the situation.
There are times when a good leader has to pretend to be way more aggressive or assertive than they need to be to make an impact, and sometimes that translates into arrogance.
(Sharon): Likewise, if you’re too humble, you may be perceived as weak or ineffective. So where’s the balance between stepping into your voice and still remaining humble?
(Paulette): You can still be humble and hold yourself and others accountable. I think the missing piece in a lot of humble people who aren’t great leaders is a lack of awareness of the importance of accountability, self-discipline, and understanding that they still need to get results. They still need to be assertive, but again, based on my definition of humility, while depending on other people. It’s a collaborative approach. Those who get into trouble are the ones who are subservient; who do whatever others ask them to do. That’s not humility.
(Sharon): That’s people-pleasing, and it’s not a healthy behavior.
(Paulette): Yes. That’s a fine line. That’s lack of accountability to yourself and/or to the greater objective. That’s not humility.
(Sharon): The Global Girls Project is fundamentally about empowerment and helping women and girls find and live their own voice out loud. What role does humility play in empowerment?
(Paulette): If you look at my definition of humility and needing other people, I think these girls and women embody humility. However, they also need to stand up and communicate and assert what they know and have done. So again, there’s a fine line between sharing the credit versus giving all of the credit to somebody else. You have to be honest.
(Sharon): I think that’s something that so many women and girls who feel disempowered struggle with. Any book you read on leadership says that it does require an ability to self-promote to a degree, but there’s this fear and perception that if I self-promote, I’m being narcissistic…I’m not being humble.
(Paulette): Here’s what I would say to that – know your audience and be very specific in targeting your behavior to the audience. I’ll give you an example:
I had a client who was a very humble, excellent leader. Her staff loved her, followed her, and would have done anything for her. One of the things she did was delegate power, send people on great projects, and give them visibility and exposure – sometimes more that she gave herself exposure. She got feedback from her boss’s coach that the boss thought she wasn’t doing any work — what was she spending her time doing? The boss really didn’t know if she was adding any value, since he didn’t see what she was doing behind the scenes.
I came in a few years later and she told me about this incident. What I would’ve told her to do was to target her boss as a separate audience and communicate honestly everything she’s doing. It’s not lack of humility or arrogance. It’s what you communicate, to whom, and how.
(Sharon): It’s being very situationally aware.
(Paulette): Exactly! Communication is a big part of humility in leadership, if you don’t want it to backfire on either end of the spectrum. So my advice is to learn to communicate what you’re doing well and to the right audiences, while being humble with everybody.
(Sharon): Earlier this year I had an interesting experience. I was in a meeting, openly sharing my purpose for being there, while trying to establish common ground. Within less than a minute, however, I could feel this competitive energy from the other party. It felt really uncomfortable, and I could see where this ego was getting in the way of a productive conversation. It can be tricky…trying to stay humble, while simultaneously trying not to get run over.
(Paulette): The advice I would have for women, is that if you have the luxury of steering clear of arrogant people, do so. Surround yourself with other humble people. If you’re already in an organization that has high egos that are linked to high arrogance, learn how to deal with them with agility and the ability to adapt your behavior. You can only control yourself and your behavior – no others’ egos.
(Sharon): What’s the relationship between humility and confidence?
(Paulette): The most successfully humble leaders are also the most self-confident. Self-confidence releases you and gives you the freedom to be humble. A humble person is supremely self-confident and secure, overcoming insecurities to acknowledge shortcomings.
(Sharon): I’ve found that as I’ve grown in confidence in myself, it’s been easier to hold space for others without feeling threatened by whatever they have to say, even if it’s not what I want to hear.
(Paulette): Exactly. Conversely, very arrogant people, if you scratch beneath the surface, are insecure and have all types of inferiority complexes and have very dysfunctional personalities. The well-rounded ones who are humble and ‘hold space for others’, as you put it, acknowledge they need other people and are co-dependent on society and the world.
(Sharon): I first learned about the concept of holding space for other people through the writing and teachings of Parker Palmer, the Quaker educator/philosopher. In the Quaker tradition, they have these circles within which they hold ‘sacred space’ for others to put an issue forth — really honoring each person’s perspective so that they can come to a consensus they can all support. I think that approach takes real confidence and humility to be able to hear opposing viewpoints and then be able to listen for understanding, instead of impulsively reacting and judging.
(Paulette): It goes back to realizing that you’re not always right.
(Sharon): And that our ‘right’ is a function of the lens through which we view the world. For example, you and I may both be looking at the same blue bottle, but from my vantage point, it appears different to me than it does to you. It takes humility to acknowledge that my ‘truth’ may not be the only or complete ‘truth’ or perspective in a given situation.
Going back to the issue of self-promotion, women in the work place are often told that they need to ‘toot their own horn’ if they want to advance in their careers. How do you balance the pressure for self-promotion with humility?
(Paulette): Again, by being very selective, targeting your audience, and adapting your behavior to it. This involves self-awareness.
(Sharon): What advice would you give other women and girls who are struggling to come into their own voice and leadership?
(Paulette): I really feel strongly that one way to do that is by helping others and by leaving a legacy of coaching and mentoring others. It doesn’t have to be the traditional coaching and mentoring model with an older mentor and younger mentee; it can be across ages and with different types of women.
The other thing I would tell women and girls is to ask for help. That’s humility. I come back to recognizing and acknowledging the need for other people. If you do that successfully, you are going to ask for help. In so doing, you’re not only helping yourself, but are helping the person who is helping you. If you really believe it’s a circle and a matter of leaving a legacy, then you’re creating this wonderful opportunity for someone to help you and they’re doing the same.
I often coach my clients to ask for help, because it’s the highest form of flattery and a compliment to others.
(Sharon): I’m curious…in your experience, why do you think so many women struggle with this?
(Paulette): It’s a fear of being seen as weak or not knowing all of the answers. But again, if you’re humble and self-confident, you’re okay with not knowing all of the answers. The other part is that in order to be successfully humble, you also have to be strong in something; you have to balance it with a strong skill set, great knowledge, and an understanding of power.
I’d love to close our interview with a couple of favorite quotes:
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” (Rick Warren)
“Humility is like underwear; necessary, but indecent if it shows or is exposed.” (Helen Nielson)
I like the last quote, because while it’s important to be humble, you don’t want to wear it as a badge, either.
(Sharon): Well said! Thank you, Paula, for sharing your own insights and wisdom and for the opportunity to collaborate with you on this project!