Humility and Leadership


There is a certain mindset among young inexperienced leaders, both in the military and in corporate America: they’ve been trained in the best military schools or best MBA programs and think that’s enough. However, they often fail to realize they possess the least amount of actual experience among the group they’re leading.

Before the Marine Corps I earned both a B.A. and J.D. with a short interval in between during which I taught for two years. So by the time I’d finished my formal education I was 28 years old, it was then that I decided to join the Marine Corps. As a consequence, I was one of the oldest officer candidates in Quantico at officer candidate school.

After 16 months of training I arrived, “educated” and ready to go, my battalion commander thought it important for this new ground intelligence lieutenant to get command experience with a rifle platoon, rather than just join his staff. It wasn’t until I realized I was going to command a platoon that I had to ask honest question of myself: How do I do this? Will I be able to bring these men home safely from a combat deployment? How do I establish rapport with my men? How do I earn their trust? I had countless other questions as I became a rifle platoon commander, by now I was 29 years old.

I think two things helped me above everything else, humility and respect. My age, maturity, and life experience kept me grounded. I had the humility to ask my men for help, advice, and suggestions based on their years of experience, I knew I would make the decisions, and the success or failure of the mission would fall on my shoulders but I needed their input to really be successful. Through humility I was able to stand on the shoulders of my subordinates: deferring to their experiences in combat – what worked and didn’t work for them. After all why would I believe that because I had read a book, written a paper and given a presentation I’m suddenly the expert? How could I, dismiss the 13yrs of experience of my platoon sergeant; or the combined 18+yrs of experience my squad leaders possessed? Far be it from me to disregard that wealth of knowledge just because I was the one wearing gold insignia on my collar and because I held a title.

As I gained their trust I began to hear stories. Stories of young hard charging lieutenants (some of them, men I had matriculated with for those 16 months of training) who walked into their platoons believing they walked on water. The common disease among the young overly confident 2d lieutenant is hubris. Their plans for success were often centered not on an honest appraisal of the platoon’s abilities – their strengths and weaknesses; but rather on his ego. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and the little gold bars have gotten the best of him. The result left them flat on their face.

Imagine if you will, you have just graduated from a language school becoming fluent in a foreign language. And through your rigorous training you’ve actually become pretty darn good at it, but you’ve never been the country whose language you’ve nearly mastered. You’ve learned the language, the history, the roles, “the do’s and don’ts.” After school you line up a trip, board a plane and go visit, linking up with groups of locals immediately. Yes, you all speak the same language and can understand one another, in fact your book knowledge may even be better than theirs, but would you dare arrive in that country and completely disregard all of their experience, their understanding of the terrain, of key personnel, of how to get things done simply because you have the “book knowledge” and are the one in charge?

Your confidence would become arrogance and your new found friends would quickly depart. Stepping into a new role takes humility and a desire to continue learning. Leadership requires that honest appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses as well as that of his subordinates, but take a moment and get it right, resist the urge to let people know how smart you are, too few people in leadership positions feel comfortable being ignorant of how to do something. Admit to yourself that while your track record might be excellent, you might have the least amount of experience of the entire group and to take over your new role will require some listening. New leaders often arrive with a certain hubris that doesn’t allow them to see the bigger picture, the title gets in the way, often it’s where the disease begins; they have the least amount of experience, which should be an exercise in humility.

Author: Chris Pavlak J.D

USMCR, speaker, trainer