I once taught at Pacific Christian College (now Hope International University). I was home one evening grading papers. I read one and gave it a grade and then read the next one on the pile. It had the very same content – word for word. My first question was why would someone copy a paper and then put it right on top of the one they copied it from? 

Now, I didn’t know which person did the cheating. So I called both ladies into my office. I showed the papers and asked who wrote the original and who copied. They were silent and kept looking at each other. I waited. Finally, one said they copied if from another roommate. The other student had done the same. They both copied from a third person and didn’t know each other had the same idea. That’s why they both came in on top of each other. I warned them both about cheating and that if I caught them copying again, they could fail the class and even be dismissed from the college. 

A few weeks later, I caught one of them cheating again, this time on a test. I met with her and asked her why she would cheat again and take such a risk. What I was really trying to do was discover what would motivate such behavior that would cause her to cheat with such consequences. She said he was under great pressure from home to get straight A’s. She said she found college to be much harder than she expected and she could not go home failing or having poor grades. She lived in fear of her parents’ reaction. After a long discussion, I asked her to go home for the rest of the semester. I made sure she understood this was not punishment, but I urged her to work out her relationship with her parents through a counselor. She did just that and came back to school the next semester and eventually graduated from college. She also developed a great relationship with her parents. 

One of the greatest things I learned from my mentor in college was this simple life-changing principle: All behavior is motivated. He got it from the well-known author Larry Crabb. It’s simple and basic. I’ll bet it didn’t blow you away or knock you off your chair. But it’s so profound and so easily forgotten. Someone in your church, organization or even in your house attacks you or unfairly criticizes you and you react in a way that you later regret. People act the way they do for a reason. You react for a reason. The words and tone both you and your detractor used were motivated by something. 

I’ve come to realize in the last few years that there are many in my church who suffer from serious abuse issues that caused trauma. These folks are not just those who were in the military (there are many who suffer from PTSD for sure). So many folks have suffered emotional, verbal, physical, sexual and spiritual abuse from others. I’m amazed at how many people come to our church and later report the horrible abuse they experienced from spiritual leaders in their lives who used their power to control, shame, use, and abuse. I give out so many books on spiritual abuse because folks didn’t even know that such a thing exists. But they feel the effects of it. 

A person’s hang-ups, hurts, bad habits or addictions are often a way to cope with the trauma they experience or have experienced in the past. All behavior, good or bad, is motivated by something. We have to get past the behavior itself and understand what is deeper that drives the behavior.

Most of us look at this principle and can agree with it. It makes perfect sense. We become very utilitarian about it. We want to use it to help someone change their behavior and help them discover and address what causes or caused their actions. We use it to change the behavior of that critical person or even our spouse. 

We might even go one more step and look at ourselves and wonder why we did what we did or said what we said to try and discover our motivations. Good reflection can lead to self-awareness that can help us change our behavior.   

We use this principle to keep us from being and staying judgmental. Not that we excuse any bad behavior, but it helps us move from judgment to caring help when we understand or even seek to understand what motivates behavior. 

But we won’t get to these places of clarity until we consistently take the time to understand first. First, understand. That for me is the greatest application of the fact that all behavior is motivated. What a great aspiration. It’s an awareness. It’s a commitment. It’s a learned habit. First, understand before you respond or react. Ask genuine questions (not questions with a point). Seek to understand what motivates or motivated the behavior. That very effort can change how we see and respond to a person and has power to help that person.

I love how Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says it. He reminds us that we are at our best as a leader and as a person when we seek to “understand before being understood.” Our human pride that feeds our brokenness wants others to understand how we feel, why we did what we did or didn’t do first. But the key to great leaders is that they, out of humility, seek first to understand before being understood. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being understood, but when we set that on the shelf, then we can listen and try to understand the motivation that leads to the action. 

I know, this isn’t rocket science. So why is this not our first and natural response – first understand. It’s because of the power of pride in all of our lives. Humility is a choice. Out of humility, we can also decide to first understand. If we do it enough and often, it might even become a habit!

In 2001 Jim Collins came out with his landmark book – Good to Great. In 2005 he came out with a follow up for churches and nonprofits called Good to Great and the Social Sector. There’s so many great applications from these two books. We’ve used many of the concepts in our church over the years. The one that has actually stood out the most to me was Collins’s view of the five levels of leadership. Here’s a summary of the five levels. As you read these, consider where you actually live today and where you want to be in the future. Try to be honest with yourself.

Level 1: The Highly Capable Individual
This is the kind of person who has a lot to offer. They make a contribution because they have knowledge, talent, and skills needed to do a really good job.

Level 2: The Contributing Team Member
This person not only has skills and knowledge, but is a good team member who works well with others to help the team to be effective, productive, and successful.

Level 3: The Competent Manager
This person is able to organize a group of people to execute specific projects, programs, and goals.

Level 4:  Effective Leader
This person leads a department or organization to accomplish a vision by executing key goals. There are lots of top leaders who are able to do this.

Level 5: The Great Leader
This kind of leader can take a good church or organization and make it a great one. This leader has all the knowledge, capabilities and skills of the other four levels but they have one more key asset. They have the unique blend of HUMILITY and WILL that is essential for the greatness of the organization.

Humility and will! This is ingenious. I’ve observed a special and critical connection between these two traits in leadership. I’ve written often about the importance of humility. My third blog was about humility and I called it “The Greatest Trait.” It is the first and most important of my Seven Non-negotiable Traits of a Leader (you can access the videos here – register to get a login permission). Most leaders primarily rely on a strong persona and a strong will to be a great leader. They can view this as being large and in charge. I often remind leaders that they can’t be very successful without humility. A strong will gets things done for sure. No leader will be great without humility.

Humility and a strong will seem to be contradictory at first, but together, they make for a great leader. They are the core of what it means to care for people and get things done. Both are essential for greatness in a church, non-profit, business or any organization.

Think about the greatest leader ever – Jesus. What humility! The very fact that he left the privilege of heaven and came to earth was an act of humility. His willingness to sacrifice his life for those he created was an act of humility (see Philippians 2:6-8). He used all his resources, knowledge, character, his very life, for our benefit.

What strong will, too. Jesus was no wimp. He knew his purpose and didn’t let friend or foe distract him from his mission. In three years he got out his message and trained eleven guys who started a movement that changed the world. Against overwhelming odds, he endured more than any of us will ever experience and overcame every obstacle and challenge to offer humanity a living hope.

What does a level 5 leader really look like and do? How do we lead like Jesus? It takes intentional effort to become a person of strong will and an observable humility. Here are some specific descriptions, attitudes, actions and skills that help us develop and grow our humility and will. What specific things might you add?

Traits of Humility

  • Genuine – you are authentic. There’s no pretense. You are the same person when standing in front of your staff or congregation as you are when you are standing beside an entry level worker.
  • Servant attitude – your focus is not to make yourself successful but to help everyone else be successful. You’re willing to make the costly investments in others to help them grow and develop. You consistently are thinking about others and putting them first. You are about setting up others up for success.
  • Team player – you value and practice collaboration. You know that the best comes from a team with all their unique perspectives and gifts. You work to create not just unity in your team, but you go the extra mile to make sure each team member is appropriately challenged and supported. You model and help each team member be a contributor and to support the contributions of each other. A humble leader channels their ambition into the team rather than himself or herself. Humble leaders hire great people, often who are better than they are, and empower them to lead well.
  • Celebrity adverse – you don’t talk about yourself. You’re not seeking to be the celebrity or be in the spotlight. In fact, you are intentional to put the spotlight on others. Rather than looking for praise, appreciation and affirmation, you work hard to give those same things to others. You look for literally every opportunity to recognize great character, a job well done, an insightful contribution or whatever in others. You look for ways to express and show appreciation. This kind of leader is compelling, but modest. They are never boastful. By the way, in Collin’s research, he found that many of the best leaders never wrote a book.
  • Looking out the window – I love this picture Jim Collins gives. He says as a humble leader you look out the window to others, rather than in the mirror to yourself. You give credit to others when things go well and take the blame when things go wrong.
  • Common words used to describe a humble leader: quiet, modest, reserved, gracious, calm, mild-mannered, self-effacing, and understated.

Here’s the bottom line question of being humble. Do you lead to make others and the organization successful or do you lead others to make you successful?

Traits of a Strong Will

  • Intense resolve and resilience – you will do whatever needs to be done to make the organization great. No challenge, hindrance or obstacle will dissuade you. While modest and humble, a level 5 leader is anything but weak. They experience fear, but act for the good of others in spite of the fear (hence they are seen as fearless). They are so sold out to their cause that they will endure the lows and hard times.
  • Clear catalyst in achieving results – you are fanatically driven with an incurable need to produce sustainable results. You excel in great ideas and vision, but what makes you great is your ability to consistently execute those ideas.
  • Dedication to the organization – you will do anything that’s legal, moral and God honoring to make your organization great. You are devoted to your work while maintaining your own balance, equilibrium, health and important relationships.
  • Strong work ethic – you model self-sacrifice and others see that you are more “workhorse” than “show horse.” Key to this quality is that you are self-motivated. You set your own goals and standards and do your best to live by them. You have a passion that shapes how invested you are in your team and the organization. Finally, you live by a “whatever it takes” attitude.

So great leaders, or level 5 leaders, have this unusual combination of a very strong will and a humble character. This allows them to aim not for their success, but for the success of the organization, however that success is defined.

If you got this far in reading, let me tell you that this will be my final blog until early July. I take the month of June off as my annual “sabbath.” I use this month to unplug from work and the daily stress of the continual production cycles. I’ve found it is an essential part in keeping me healthy by providing rest and renewal. So, I’ll be back in July!

What’s THE most important trait of a leader? Can we even find one key trait that all great leaders must possess? Here’s a common list that will show up in this discussion.

  • Courage and boldness!
  • The ability to motivate!
  • Empowering and developing other leaders!
  • Emotional intelligence or EQ (emotional quotient like empathy, self-awareness, transparency, self-control, connecting skills, etc.)!
  • Vision!
  • A great strategic mind!
  • The ability to communicate well!
  • Integrity!

All of these are essential qualities of a great leader. And we could add more like execution and collaboration. But I believe there is one trait that has greater influence in leadership than all others? I’ve been a student of leadership now for 40 years and I believe that humility is the one trait that is the most important of all.

This trait allows all the other important traits to exist, grow and flourish. It births essential traits like self-awareness, collaboration, vulnerability and transparency, servant leadership, the ability to be a continual learner, character integrity and so much more. All leaders have weaknesses and shortcomings. This trait allows leaders to admit they are not the perfect complete package. Humility allows leaders to surround themselves with people who can balance their deficiencies using their unique gifts and skills.

Leaders can be “successful” without humility. Leaders, in and out of pride, can grow a church or run a company that shows amazing results and can even gain the respect of others. But in the end, a lack of humility will keep them from a bigger potential that will never be realized. And worse, a lack of humility will keep a leader from giving away their very best, whatever that is, to build up others. Success wins the day. Humility leaves a legacy. Today comes and goes, but a legacy is what lasts.

What is humility? It is a choice! Humility is not natural, rather we choose to be humble. The core meaning in the word humility is to “lower oneself.” In humility, we lower ourselves for benefit of others. The decision to lower ourself is letting go and giving away what we possess to help and serve others. What might we have to give away? Power, influence, position, status, resources (time, money, knowledge, abilities), comfort, safety, recognition, or even our own advancement. Humility is lowering ourselves and letting go of what we have & possess for good of others.

This is so important that I’d like you to watch a 16 minute video I did on humility. It is part of our the Seven Non-Negotiable Traits of a Leader that is core to our Next Level Leadership development strategy at Pantano. The link is below and there is also a humility video guide on the Leading Edge website you can access before you watch. The guide has lots of practical ideas on how to grow your humility and a good list of books and resources to help you grow in this area.

HUMILITY

There are too few really humble leaders. Make yourself the best leader you can be. It starts and ends with humility. Humility is a choice. We can learn to be humble.