Leaders are role models. They can’t help but be.

Leading by example requires setting the best possible example of attitudes, values, words, and behaviors.

Whether they are good or bad role models is another story, however. In my book The Intelligent Leader, I define a leader simply as “an example for others to follow.” Not only do the best leaders epitomize the values of a team or organization, they do so without bullying or cajoling. They share their experience without falling back on, “In my day, we did it this way.”

Intelligent Leaders recognize that there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and they have the self-awareness to know when they’re stepping too close to that line. They genuinely have the best interests of the team and the organization at heart, and because of this, people want to do their utmost for them.

Intelligent leaders also understand the value of two qualities that at first glance may not seem very “leaderlike”: humility and vulnerability. Here’s why those attributes matter so much.

Humility vs. Hubris

Humility is strongly attached to reality, while hubris is often divorced from it. Hubris focuses on the leader him- or herself, while humility focuses on the success of the mission. Hubris often results from zooming past the line between confidence and arrogance, and while the sheer self-assurance of hubris might provide momentum for a while, over the long term, the results can be disastrous.

While hubris tends to lead to toxicity, incivility, and hostility, humility leads to respect, tolerance, and mutually beneficial outcomes. Humility in a leader is far likelier to lead to a culture of lasting positive action.

Being Vulnerable vs. Being Unassailable

Intelligent Leaders don’t wear capes and are secure enough to show vulnerability.

In The Intelligent Leader, I go into great detail about the power of vulnerability, which almost sounds like an oxymoron. Vulnerability isn’t about being weak, but about being open and transparent. What vulnerability does is open leaders up to new possibilities and new ways of thinking. It builds trust among team members and shows that you, a leader, are human and not some Teflon-coated species that is invulnerable to what the world dishes out.

Vulnerability also goes hand in hand with accountability. Would an invulnerable, overconfident leader readily admit to making mistakes and go about rectifying the situation? It’s unlikely. When a leader pretends to be perfect, the pressure builds up over time, and cracks in the armor of invulnerability will inevitably appear.

Teams Want to Be Led by Real Human Beings

Teams crave strong leadership, but “strong leadership” doesn’t mean leadership that is removed, unaccountable, and always right. Strong leadership – or Intelligent Leadership as I call it – is fully human and strives for continual improvement.

The leader and role model demonstrates the values, words, and actions that get results and build up, rather than oppress the team. People naturally want to follow a leader who not only knows how to get great results but knows how to do so while helping team members develop their own skills and competencies in a virtuous cycle of advancement.

The seemingly invulnerable, hubristic leader may get short-term results, but it’s an unsustainable leadership model. Leaders, no matter how well-trained, skilled, and experienced, are still human, and will still make mistakes. And hubristic leaders don’t receive much sympathy when they are shown to have feet of clay.

Leadership development is in many ways, human development. Outstanding leaders have combinations of skills and attributes that get great results in a specific context. But they don’t “arrive” at being leaders one day and no longer need leadership development. Even the greatest leaders understand that their leadership is a work in progress, and that for that work to continue, they must have the trust and goodwill of their teams.

If you would like to learn more about Intelligent Leadership, I encourage you to check out my books, including my latest book, The Intelligent Leader.


Back to blog