5 min read

Throughout history, humility has rarely been associated with leadership. Yet, in today’s globally interconnected world, it may be the key to effective leadership.

Santiago, a Chilean friend of mine, was invited to serve as the manager of a small non-profit organization in Miami. He and his family left everything to come to the U. S. in answer to that call and to meet with the Board of Trustees. But when he arrived to the meeting, his mouth dropped open, he felt his blood pressure rise, and all kinds of violent utterances came into his mind. Though he held his tongue and stayed put, he felt like stomping out of the meeting and immediately returning to Chile. It was only by a thread that he decided to stay.

What was the problem? Santiago was dressed in a formal business suit, while several of the trustees were dressed in shorts! In Santiago’s culture, this was totally inappropriate attire for a first meeting with a new manager, whereas in the vacation and retirement atmosphere of Miami, Florida, it was normal. By coming to the meeting dressed like they were going on a picnic, Santiago thought these men were demonstrating their disapproval of the decision to call him as their new manager. This event demonstrates what a total cultural disconnect looks like.

As these kinds of encounters become more prevalent in the workplace, it is important that leaders understand how other cultures think. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s about how we interpret symbols and the twists and turns that our thoughts take to arrive at their destination. The only way to learn this is to humbly listen and learn.

The problem is that we carry within our minds deeply embedded images of leadership that tell us that leaders must have all the answers. According to that definition, to seek insight from others is to admit one’s abdication of leadership. But in a multicultural world, such pretensions cannot be sustained.

There are really only two options for how we can respond to globalization. We can entrench ourselves even more into a futile effort to maintain the limited perspective of the clan. Or we can take the attitude of humility and learn.

For centuries, groups could pretty much get away with gathering into cultural cliques and protecting their co-members and children from the evils of outside ideas. Today, however, pretending that you can operate in the midst of people who think just like you is not only parochial ignorance—it’s potentially devastating for your business.

The learning that leads to success in this complex, multicultural, world, requires humility. Following are three reasons why this is so.

  1. You need humility in order to listen without judgment. Leaders tend to evaluate everything they hear. But evaluation shuts down learning. Great leaders of the 21st century will have learned the art of postponing judgment.
  2. You need humility to have your assumptions questioned. Assumptions are such a core part of who we are that we experience their challenge as a personal attack. Humble leaders understand that their assumptions–though deeply rooted–may not be the only way to think or react.
  3. You need humility to cross societal barriers. Effective leaders of the 21st century must, at times, by-pass society’s norms about who knows what. They listen to wisdom regardless of the direction from which it comes. It may be uncomfortable to ask a Korean employee what your mannerisms look like to Korean families, but such knowledge could help you get your message across more effectively to your Korean constituents.

Jesus Christ was one of the greatest leaders of all time, and yet, his modus operandi was humility. Jesus also envisioned a multicultural kingdom. He told his followers to go and recruit followers from all the ethnic groups of the world.2 Jesus expected his followers to deliberately and purposefully cross social and cultural barriers to connect with people who were different from themselves. Yet—except for a few specialist Christians called missionaries—the church has largely ignored this vision of the Christ, congregating instead in homogeneous clusters.

When leaders of the 21st century learn this art of crossing the fences of cultural diversity, they may experience the power of multicultural synergy. The Mirriam-Webster Medical Dictionary defines Synergy as

the interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.

As leaders take on the attitude and behavior of humility, they may begin to see how different cultural perspectives can coalesce into new solutions for tomorrow’s problems. The potential synergy will be worth the pain of abandoning an outmoded leadership archetype for a new model of humility.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments area below. I’d love to hear from you.


1This post was inspired by an interview with Edgar H. Schein reported in Volume 10, Number 1, of Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2011, pp. 131-147. Dr. Schein’s most recent book, Helping: How to Offer, Give, & Receive Help, also speaks extensively about the need for “Humble Inquiry.”

2Matthew 28:18-20.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.


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