Humility in Leadership

  • Published
  • By Maj. Patrick Finkbone
  • 56th Medical Group
The definition of humility is "the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people." This is not a trait we commonly attribute to our leaders.  In fact, when we think of a leadership role we often imagine one who is telling others what to do and how to do it with the confidence that they know better than anyone under their supervision.  However, this mentality can be counter-productive and limits the potential of the team.  This point is best portrayed in a quote by John Ruskin (former English writer): 
"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."

I have been in the Air Force only a short amount of time (2 years active duty) and I have limited leadership experience.  However, being an orthopedic surgeon, I am the leader in the operating room, tasked with the gift and responsibility of taking care of the patient on the table.  Additionally, while in clinic there are orthopedic technicians under my instruction and supervision.  These leadership experiences have truly been a humbling and rewarding experience.

As a leader, you need to realize that your greatest asset is the people on your team.  We have all been blessed with different qualities and different experiences.  No matter what level of education, rank or training people have there is always something they can offer to the team.  Everyone has a different perspective and viewpoint.  By opening up an environment of mutual respect and communication, people of all levels will feel comfortable to share their thoughts.  Some of the best ideas can come from unexpected sources. I have been in operating rooms during some of my training where this was not the environment.  In these cases, the surgeon may have been prideful or may have felt threatened when others made suggestions. They responded by either ignoring or belittling others in the operating room.  Dialogue was silent in these rooms. Members of the team felt under-utilized and sometimes appeared disinterested in what was going on. Avoidable mistakes were sometimes made because of this refusal to listen to others.

My policy is to leave pride out of the operating room or any working environment as everyone on the team is working toward one goal together and should be free to voice their opinion on how best to accomplish the goal.  Ultimately, the leader will be the one to make the final decision. However, all ideas should be invited and considered. 

When a leader has humility it empowers their subordinates to work to their full potential.  A leader who is humble establishes a precedence that is carried all the way down the chain.  If subordinates feel there is mutual respect between them and their supervisors, they often are motivated to work hard for those supervisors.  Additionally, if a subordinate suggests an idea with regards to their job and the change is made at their suggestion, they will take more ownership of that job and work harder to be more efficient and precise.  It is also much easier to work hard when you believe in what you are doing and how you are doing it.

Good leaders are able to unify and inspire their team by being humble.  They realize they are not always going to be the smartest or best at everything, but rather need to figure out who on their team is the smartest and best.  Ronald Reagan said, "The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things.  He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things."