The term “leadership” is relatively new. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word can be traced back only as far as the 19th century. But today, leadership is a hot topic. Amazon offers 300,000 books with the word “leadership” in the title. It seems that most everyone wants to be a leader, or at least be perceived as one. Achieving leadership status demands respect, carries panache, and undoubtedly satisfies one’s ego.
The most frequent question asked when discussing leadership is whether leaders are born or made. A recent research study by the University of Illinois suggests that leadership is 30 percent genetic and 70 percent lessons learned by life experiences.1 The consensus today is that there are indeed some in-born characteristics that predispose people to become leaders.
I was awakened to the possibility that I might have some leadership qualities when I was in my teens. I was in the English Church in Lausanne, Switzerland, during a Christmas service. I noticed that something was going on a few benches ahead of me. I walked up and saw that a woman was lying on the floor between two benches and seemed to have fainted. Everyone around her was looking down at her, uncertain about what to do. I took charge. I asked one man to help me pick her up, and we moved her to a small adjoining room. By then she was conscious and asked for a glass of water. I offered to call an ambulance or a physician, but she declined, saying that she was feeling much better. Reflecting on the incident sometime later, it became clear to me that sometimes we don’t have a choice but to lead and that we should never assume others will take responsibility.
There are many traits and skills necessary to be a good leader: intelligence, courage, competence, empathy, creativity, decisiveness, communication skills. But one that is often ignored is humility. Humility doesn’t mean weakness or lack of resolve. Humility means honesty! St. Vincent de Paul once said, “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.” Humility makes us recognize that we don’t have all the answers and therefore enables us to learn.
Humility also inspires loyalty. In The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders, an article published in Harvard Business Review in 2014, Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib reference a recent study by Catalyst, which found that “humility is one of four critical leadership factors for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included.”2
I have had the privilege of getting to know many leaders. None have impressed me more than David Finn, the co-founder of the public relations firm Ruder Finn, who exemplifies the virtue of humility in leadership. He started his company 70 years ago with his best friend Bill Ruder. At one point Ruder and Finn, as it was then called, was the largest PR firm in the world. Finn personally knows heads of states, CEOs of America’s largest companies, and world-renowned artists and authors, yet never have I heard him drop a name or pride himself on his many connections. Throughout the course of close to 20 years, I saw him in many different circumstances, some of which were very difficult. His primary concern was always fairness. He truly cared about all his employees and their wellbeing, irrespective of their status in the company. I have never once seen a modicum of arrogance in his speech or behavior.
David was also quick to admit a mistake when he thought he had been wrong. I remember an incident shortly after I joined the firm. I was involved in organizing the 50th anniversary of the firm, and something went wrong with the graphic of a brochure about to be printed. He expressed his displeasure by raising his voice. I was a little upset and took a short walk around the block. As I returned to the office, I was told that David was looking for me. When he saw me in the hallway, he came to me and said: “You were upset.” I pretended I was not. He said: “No, you WERE upset and it’s my fault and I apologize.” I was impressed and moved by his comments and attitude.
My maternal grandfather, Charles Gabriel Petter, was also a leader. Born in Bern, Switzerland, the eldest son of 10 children, he helped his mother raise his siblings until he was 18. He then moved to Paris to study engineering. He enlisted in the French army as a foreign legionnaire at the outbreak of World War I and quickly rose to the rank of captain. He proved to be an extraordinary leader. One day he was ordered to command the execution of 10 French sentinels who were caught sleeping on their watch. That was the law, but he refused and told his superiors that he would rather join the guilty sentinels and be executed with them than obey the command. His determination impressed his superiors and they pardoned all 10 sentinels. He thus saved their lives. He never bragged about his accomplishments and was quick to laugh about himself. When invited to be included in the French “Who’s Who,” he found the offer amusing and declined. He did, however, accept the French Legion of Honor.
In 2003, I had the honor to be asked to become president of the New York Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. I first declined, saying that I was relatively new to the organization and that there were many more qualified candidates than myself. My arguments did not convince anyone, so I accepted the responsibility. That experience taught me the values of consensus building, collegiality, conflict resolution, and the importance of focusing on well-defined goals, but I was aware that my fundamental role as president was to serve the membership, the board, and the public. Such a perspective requires humility.
I have been in the ethics field for 20 years now. I believe that ethics counselors serve as leaders by providing guidance, leading people to find the correct path or course of action and helping them avoid the pitfalls of ethical lapses. In resolving ethical dilemmas, we also need a dose of humility. We do the best we can to determine the right course of action by taking the time to examine a situation, look at all the options and their consequences, and then decide.
I believe all of us, whether by choice or out of necessity, will be called to lead. What kind of a leader will we be? When that moment comes, we would be wise to remember Lao Tzu’s words on leadership: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”