Humility is the Executive Leader’s Friend


Humility is the Executive Leader’s Friend

There are two true stories we sometimes relate to our Denver clients at VIM Executive Coaching about leaders who sweep – literally. The first was about Coach John Wooden, arguably the greatest basketball coach who ever lived. He was much more than a coach of course, but a speaker, author and media personality. In the middle of many weeks, when the UCLA gym was empty, Coach Wooden would leave his office, open the custodian’s broom closet, get a large push broom and sweep the gym. A similar story from my own life, was about a Sensei, a 7th Degree Black Belt who would sweep the floor of his highly successful dojo though his students insisted on helping him. As the result of our executive coaching, I met a powerful CFO with a major high-tech company who kept the books for her 100 member church, the head of a hospital who twice-a-year travels to Uganda to treat the ill and a CEO of a rail company who gave away his old Toyota to a low-level track worker.

Why would all of these leaders do such things?


Every person I mention above came from humble backgrounds. They could have avoided “the common people” as they rose through the ranks. Certainly, they would have had a lot of company in that regard. These days, arrogance is hardly lacking in business, politics, entertainment, sports and life in general.

Yet with the men and women I mention above, they were the opposite of arrogant and they were also successful in their endeavors. They credited hard work and, you guessed it, humility as being central to their core. However, I would also add that humility goes along with a larger component: authenticity.

The head of the hospital steadfastly refused to go to expensive vacation hotels or on cruises. She said “I am not that kind of person. Those places do not correspond with our values.”

If humility is part of authenticity, then both are a function of mindfulness; of knowing who you are and knowing yourself and your role in business or in life. Mindfulness is all too frequently lost among leaders. Mindfulness allows us to respond to challenges and to allow ourselves to be open to a myriad of solutions and possibilities.

Coming full circle, John Wooden was so outstanding as a coach precisely because he was open to improvisation, contingency planning, to feedback and to the possibility that his solutions could have a touch of bias. Why did the railway CEO give-away his old car to a young employee who had trouble (ironically) finding transportation to work? 

“I remember what it was like for us in the early days. If I can help this guy along, what have I lost?”

However, there was a more practical reason. The CEO shared that the employee had good ideas and he was well-liked. As a leader, why not do something for an employee whom you respect?

In fact, having humility and being authentic is a sign of respect between the executive leader and staff. The respect is visible, palpable and I might add, reciprocal.

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