Modest, mighty like Moses

Rejecting the ‘false alternative’

In Short

Feeling pressure to chose between showing humility versus confidence? You can do both, and be a better leader for it.

Understanding the role that humility plays in a leader’s success has become an important aspect of leadership studies. In recent decades, writers from Jim Collins (in his study of “Level 5 Leaders” in Good to Great) to Patrick Lencioni (who warns against leaders with “terminal correctness” in Getting Naked ) have explored this issue of humble leadership. Breaking with traditions long associated with the “Great Man Theory,” it has become increasingly de rigueur to affirm that humble leaders are simply better leaders, and that arrogance lies at the root of unwise business decisions, low employee morale, and sub-optimal productivity. Modesty is the wellspring of great leaders and great followers, while narcissism and self-centeredness are the antitheses.  

For Jews, this point has even greater poignancy. Moses, the greatest Jewish leader, is counterintuitively described as the “most humble of all people on earth” (Numbers 12:3). The link between Moses’ efficacy and his humility is not coincidental. As I have written in From Sanctuary To Boardroom: A Jewish Approach To Leadership, his modesty led him to recognize his own limitations, learn from the wisdom of others, acknowledge his mistakes, and reconsider his own decisions on several occasions. 

This Mosaic model of humility went on to become the prototype for future Jewish leaders. The Torah insists, for instance, that a sovereign must retain a humble nature and never become arrogant (Deuteronomy 17:20); Maimonides mandated that even the kings of ancient Israel, potentially the most officious of all leaders, had to lead “in a spirit of great humility.” Furthermore, the Talmud in tractate Yoma (22b) requires that all communal leaders have something reprehensible in their background so if they become haughty others can tell them to “turn around.” 

There is ample contemporary research to confirm this bond between humility and effective leadership. Among others, Deborah Ancona et al. in “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” (Harvard Business Review, 2007) and Bossidy and Charan (Execution) have argued that humble leaders deliberately seek advisors who challenge them because the pushback leads them to make wiser decisions. These leaders willingly acknowledge that they do not have all the answers, and they are prepared to own their own mistakes without blaming others. 

These findings are certainly consistent with my own, both as an academic and as a practitioner. Inspired by millennia of Jewish teachings and persuaded by the plethora of recent academic and business literature, I am convinced that if we want engaged partners and followers, increased efficiency, and a pipeline leading to viable succession planning, we must reject the “I alone can fix it” mindset.

And yet, much as I would love to assert the principle of humble leadership uber alles, the evidence is far from dispositive. 

Honest observers will have a difficult time denying the fact that arrogant leaders can be quite successful. As one pundit recently observed, “humility is not on the menu” in political campaigns. Though it is hard for some to admit, leaders who elevate cocksureness over humility convey a sense of confidence and ease that their followers find reassuring, and those leaders can attract a substantial following. Particularly in extreme circumstances, stakeholders look to their leaders – whether CEOs, elected officials, or clergy – to fight for them and defend their interests. The more unilateral the leaders’ approach, the greater the allure. 

Anyone who has ever prepared for a job interview or argued for a promotion knows the importance of a little well-applied braggadocio in the right context. The unvarnished reality is that while some opt for modesty in their leaders, many prefer imperiousness. Overconfidence, even to the point of cockiness, often resonates far more than humbleness. We may envision a world where only humble leaders thrive and merit alone wins out, but the world as it really is suggests a different dynamic. 

So, which is it? Are humble leaders – those who admit their mistakes, show their vulnerability, acknowledge their imperfections, and embrace perspectives other than their own – really more effective? Was the late British theologian Rabbi Louis Jacobs naïve when he taught “[t]he greater the man, the more humble he is expected to be”? Or is it axiomatic that strong leaders are like rehearsing prima donnas, perpetually echoing the refrain me-me-me-me-me

At the core of this conundrum lies a fundamental misunderstanding about what it means to lead humbly.

While Jewish texts and some contemporary writers assert that it takes confidence and self-assurance to lead humbly, the conventional Western wisdom still holds that humble leaders are weak leaders. This arbitrary dichotomy between humility and conceit in leadership is an unfortunate example of the “false dilemma fallacy,” or what the commentator George Will called “the fallacy of the false alternative.” 

It is simply untrue that humility is the functional equivalent of timidity. Those who lead must reject this “either-or syndrome”: Either I am humble and ineffectual, or I am narcissistic and powerful. We can assert our most confident selves, in an interview or in a crisis, without negating the import of sharing the credit, learning from others, admitting our imperfections, and acknowledging mistakes. 

Mastering the ability to say “I think I am right, but I might be wrong” makes the difference between highly-respected leaders and those who only wish they were. 

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the principal consultant at Leadership For Impact LLC, an executive coaching and organizational consulting firm specializing in nonprofit leadership. Dr. Lewis is the immediate past president and CEO of Spertus Institute in Chicago, and he has held several prominent leadership positions across the Jewish community.