Are Greatness and Humility in Opposition?

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Should virtuous leaders desire greatness or should virtuous leaders seek to be humble?

On first consideration, one might think that if leaders seek to become great, then they can’t be humble. Or one might think that in order to be humble, they shouldn’t desire greatness. These paradigms view greatness and humility as essentially opposed to one another. But is this true?

Truly great leadership requires both the virtues of magnanimity – striving after great things – and humility – putting service of others at the heart of leadership. Virtuous leaders become great by bringing out greatness in others.  Seeking greatness and being humble can go together, and in fact must go together for truly virtuous leadership.

Consider their opposites. The opposite of magnanimity is not, in fact, humility. The opposite of magnanimity is pusillanimity. Whereas magnanimity seeks after great things – great projects, visions, dreams – pusillanimity is a shrinking back. Magnanimity could be described as high-mindedness or great-mindedness, whereas pusillanimity is small-mindedness.  And true humility is, in fact, not small-mindedness but rather, a recognition of your relationships and interdependence with others. Small-mindedness can be a form of false humility.

Thus the opposite of humility is not magnanimity. Rather, the opposite of humility is pride. This is not the kind of pride felt after completing a job well-done and having a sense of accomplishment. Instead, this kind of pride, or hubris, is believing that one is essentially better than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, and excessive admiration of self. Dante’s definition of pride was “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbour”. Unhealthy or distorted love of self doesn’t lead to the virtue of magnanimity but rather megalomania, which could be described as a delusional disorder that is marked by feelings of personal omnipotence and grandeur.

So while at first glance it might seem like greatness and humility are opposed to one another, in fact they are companions of truly great leadership. Magnanimous and humble leaders become great by bringing out greatness in others. They have grand visions that elevate others to new heights. In fact virtuous leadership requires both these virtues. Good to Great author and former Stanford professor Jim Collins discovered this in his research and labelled such individuals as level 5 Leaders: executives in whom genuine personal humility blends with intense professional will.

Great organizations, great leaders, and great visions don’t see the qualities of magnanimity and humility in opposition, but rather as fundamental requirement s of virtuous leadership. Cultivate them and one will see their leadership go to the next level.

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