Great leaders are well known to be visionaries (able to see a compelling future), excellent communicators (able to describe what they see in metaphors we can all understand), and trust builders (able to create relationships that are characterized and sustained by mutual respect, commitment, and belief in the other).
I believe that great leaders also display three other qualities that serve us well: honor, humility, and humor.
Honor is the respect one earns through one’s behavior. To me, it means acting with integrity, being honest with others, following a “code of conduct” which empowers people and lifts us all. It means taking the high road, even at one’s own expense, and making tough ethical decisions even when no one is looking. Honor is acting in such a way as to do what one perceives is the right thing to do, even when that course of action may delay an achievement.
Honor is doing what’s right – and backing up one’s actions with a high moral standard. The honorable path may indeed mean a delay in achieving one’s goal, but meeting a goal with dishonorable conduct surrenders the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that comes with achieving that goal.
Great leaders understand that accomplishments without honor are worthless and perhaps even scurrilous. Leaders with honor are those who walk the path of integrity, believing that to do otherwise is not even an option. As I learned in an ethics class years ago, ethical (and by extension, honorable) choices are not between right and wrong, but between right and right.
What’s interesting about humility is that it’s about having a disposition to be thinking of others – not one’s self. Leaders cannot be humble by trying to be humble – they are seen as having humility when they seek not just to lead but (mostly) to serve. Leaders who see themselves as being in service of others are humble; leaders who want to take us somewhere (they believe we should go) through strength of personality, positional power, or to achieve a sense of self-importance are not.
It seems that many people regard humility as a lack of strength when in fact it is the opposite. The truly humble leader, who gives away the credit when things go well, but owns the accountability when they don’t, is the one who demonstrates strength.
Effective leaders also have the ability (and the willingness) to laugh at themselves. They can take their work seriously, but themselves lightly. They can break the tension in the room with a remark that points out the irony, or even the insanity, of what’s going on. Today, the day before the American election, I’m reminded of both candidates willingness to use humor (perhaps not often enough!) to connect with others. Barack Obama observed that when he was born, he was given a middle name by someone who assumed he’d never run for president, and John McCane said of the polls which show him trailing in all the “battleground” states that “we’ve got ‘em just where we want ‘em!”
A little humor can go a long way to inspire, relieve tension, and motivate others to act. In fact, the best humor is actually a demonstration of honor and humility. It isn’t done at the expense of others. It’s done in the spirit of realizing we’re all in this together, and if we can pause now and then to lighten up, we’ll enjoy our experience all the more.