Slapping the KingPosted on September 14,2022
The case for humble leadership
by Maj Dilan M. Swift
Maj Swift is an Infantry Officer, with the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. He ended his active service as Weapons Company Commander, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, and is an active member of The Warfighting Society.
2021 Gen Robert E. Hogaboom Leadership Writing Contest: First Place
“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”
—Saint Augustine of Hippo
The ancient Babylonians practiced a strange ritual during each New Year’s celebration. The King, festooned in royal garb, stood outside the city walls, alone before a statue of the god, Marduk, who the Babylonians believed had granted the King his position of power and leadership. Beneath the watchful gaze of his people manning the high walls a high priest approached. He stripped the King of his vestments and violently slapped him across the face. Having humiliated the King in front of his people, the high priest then ordered the King to kneel beneath Marduk, recant his sins, and reaffirm his dedication to his subjects.1 While this ritual had many purposes, some of which historians have yet to decipher, there remains one purpose chief among them: elevating humility as an imperative for leadership.
While Marines will instantly recognize the leadership traits associated with the Corps’ most famous person (JJ), verb (TIE), and subsequent noun (BUCKLE), humility is a stranger.2 The Corps’ chief mnemonic device is seemingly inane, yet the traits it stands for are used to provide a leadership framework young leaders can fall back on. While helpful, stringently following these traits without a moderating leadership principle can see leaders down a path of overconfidence, presumptuousness, and prey to cognitive bias. The infamous JJ DID TIE BUCKLE needs an update. Our leadership principles need one final trait, humility, to bind them together and forge leaders into eternal students capable of adaptation, collaboration, and critical decision making.
A Quick History
It is no coincidence that human and humility look and sound so similar. Both words originate from the Latin word humus; literally “earth” or “mud.” From humus, to humilis, to humilitatem, and then humility we can follow a word as it rises from being “of the earth,” to “insignificant,” to simply “modest.”3 Humility, born of modesty, this final “quality or state of not thinking one is better than others” is, unfortunately, in increasingly short supply yet is in dire need as leaders ascend hierarchical organizations.4
“Perfection is impossible without humility. Why should I strive for perfection if I am already good enough?”
Humility guards leaders against hubris and overconfidence. Contemporary psychological research reinforces how critical a healthy dose of humility is to curtail the deleterious effects of hierarchical success. Professor Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Davis calls this conundrum “The Power Paradox.”5 His research has found that while leaders typically gain success, and thus power, through traits and actions that “advance the interests of others,” those very traits fade “when they (successful leaders) start to feel powerful or enjoy positions of privilege.”6 The oft-cited refrain, power corrupts, has been born out in Professor Keltner’s studies, where people rise “on the basis of their good qualities … their behavior grows increasingly worse as they move up the ladder.”7 At a certain level, after great success, the traits they once needed are no longer useful or relevant.
Professors David Owens and Jonathan Davidson, on the other hand, call it the “Hubris Syndrome.”8 It is the same malady. As leaders climb the hierarchal ladder, success after success, the very positive traits that enabled success strip away one by one. Instead, they are replaced with leadership traits and characteristics far more associated with hubris. Owens and Davidson view, “Hubris Syndrome as developing after power has been held for a period of time” and diagnose it as an actual change in a leader’s psychological personality.9 While not every leader becomes consumed by hubris, Owens and Davidson argue that routinely successful leaders are more likely to develop negative leadership traits and are subsequently “resistant to the very idea” that they have changed at all.10 Such leaders see themselves as successful and feel no imperative to adapt, change, or modify what they see as behaviors that led to their very success in the first place. Clearly, this research is concerning in an organization as hierarchical as the Marine Corps and DOD writ large where leadership decisions can have drastic implications.
Fortunately, while the research concerning organizational and hierarchical success paints a dark picture, it is not deterministic. In fact, the deleterious effects of power need not be. Instead, if acknowledged, addressed, and prioritized in organizational leadership training and education they can be curtailed entirely.
“Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.”
Introducing humility into Marine Corps leadership culture and education may seem an unnecessary challenge; another principle, among many, that is not fully embraced across the force. Yet, humility is unconsciously practiced daily and embedded into our organizational culture. Humble leadership simply needs to be acknowledged and properly framed for leaders to understand the centrality of humility to personal development, leadership success, and organizational health. Leaders can:
1. Reflect: Leaders are Thinkers
Much as our greatest military leaders read, many also wrote. They reflected on their learning, interactions, and experiences to develop a deeper understanding of their environments, enemies, and, most importantly, themselves. GEN Ulysses S. Grant exemplified this approach. His ability to reflect on his “own behavior” enabled him to “think clearly about command responsibilities” and be honest with himself.11 Furthermore, Grant’s constant self-reflection consistently benefited his strategic thinking. It slowed down his decision making. It ensured pride did not “cloud the process.”12 Slowing down, reflecting, and thinking allow leaders to check themselves, question biases, and interrupt flawed thinking. Type or write a rolling journal. Write letters to friends, family, and mentors. Take notes in books and articles. Think, and think about thinking. Reflection is free, it merely requires prioritization and time and is crucial for leadership growth and excellence.
2. Practice Graciousness and Transparency
Some of the gravest casualties of military hierarchy and discipline are gratitude and transparency. Subordinates do as they are told because that is what they are expected to do. Similarly, outside of operational restraints, withholding information can be used by leaders as a tool of influence and authority. Yet, practicing graciousness and transparency can lead to respect, understanding, and buy-in. Simple practices, like saying thank you, recognizes individual contribution and imbues a sense of value in subordinates. Similarly, practicing radical transparency with a team reveals a leader’s humanity, warts and all. Paired with competence and integrity, this builds trust across an organization. Humble leaders make these practices a habit and build environments around them where it is safe to constructively fail, embrace uncertainty, engage in dialogue, and innovate.13 Those who prioritize graciousness recognize the contributions of others while vulnerable leaders connect with their teammates on a more fundamental, human, level. Both humility-based leadership practices generate buy-in, fidelity, and ownership across the organization. They can be easily practiced with a handshake, a thank-you card, a personalized note written on a 3×5 card, or a meaningful “rank on the table” conversation between professionals.
3. Practice Selflessness: Leaders Eat Last
From time immemorial Marine leaders have been taught the “Leaders Eat Last” principle. In fact, it is almost comical to watch the awkward shuffle of Marine officers and staff non-commissioned officers during meals. Each leader jostling to be last in line at the chow hall or to serve each other food during a warrior’s meal after the junior Marines have taken their fill. This culture of servant and selfless leadership is correlated to what Professors David Effelsberg, Marc Solga, and Jochen Gurt describe as manifestations of “transformational leadership.”14 While most Marine leaders who eat last are not transformational leaders, through these authors’ studies, and many Marines’ anecdotal observations, this style of leadership leads to team members transcending self-interest for organization-wide benefit. Simply put, selflessness begets commitment and sacrifice at all levels in an organization. Whether it be leaders eating last at the field mess or merely demonstrating servant-based leadership in garrison, selflessness should be embodied by leaders at all levels and reinforced and encouraged throughout leadership development pipelines as a key element of humble leadership.
Why Not Humility? The Myth of the Mask
Yet, for all its advantages, humility is not one of the core leadership traits made famous by the Corps’ notorious mnemonic device. Indeed, detractors would argue that the embodiment of humility carries great risk. It runs counter to the oft-cited “Mask of Command,” the practice of creating psychological distance between the leader and led. By separating these groups, the mask enables impartial and judicious leadership. More importantly, it reinforces the hierarchical norms of military culture, a cornerstone of martial discipline and effectiveness. Finally, this mask not only protects decision making from emotion but enables two traits celebrated in Marine culture: decisiveness and courage, both critical in the face of grave risk. For some, humility is not the answer.
Often, however, the mask of command merely protects doubtful leaders from humiliation, a risk fundamental to authentic leadership. In fact, while decisive and courageous, some of our greatest leaders routinely risked failure and humiliation. This only furthered their success. Through their humility, they set the conditions to learn from their mistakes, grow as leaders, and foster unity and cohesion. Through their authenticity and competence, their men knew them, and in some cases, loved them. Simply put, discarding the mask allows for the abasement of pride and, subsequently, true growth as a leader.
Conclusion: The Humble Leader
Humility is the secret sauce of leadership. If we reflect and think deeply, we can recognize humility as a cornerstone of all great leaders. Humility keeps leaders calm in the face of calamity by providing reflective context. Humility keeps leaders grounded when they are high, by reminding them of how they succeeded in the first place, to whom they should be grateful, and of what to be wary of. A healthy dose of humility slows us down, helps us think, encourages us to be open to new and innovative ideas, to grow and rectify our blind spots and weaknesses, and to listen across an organization. Humility tempers over-confident enthusiasm as it strengthens judgment. It humanizes leaders and creates conditions for effective and adaptive teams. It is the critical shadow leadership trait that enables the reflective development of all others.
While the Babylonian New Year’s Ceremony was indeed strange, the ritualistic slapping ended with a particular exhortation for the king’s renewed and awakened leadership. After thorough humiliation in front of his subjects and upon receiving the king’s affirmations, the high priest would respond in kind. He would affirm to the king; yes, the king had indeed been a just leader who had done right by his subjects. Yes, he had maintained order and peace. But most importantly, yes, through his willingness to be humiliated, the king had demonstrated his worth and right to his title, responsibilities, and burdens of leadership. We may not be kings today, but Marine leaders bare just as great a responsibility for the lives and welfare of our Marines and sailors. We should not need a humbling slap to remind ourselves of this honor.
1. Jennifer Laing and Warwick Frost, Royal Events: Rituals, Innovations, Meanings, (Milton Park: Routledge, 2017).
2. JJ DID TIE BUCKLE is the Marine Corps’ leadership mnemonic device. It stands for Justice, Judgment, Dependability, Integrity, Decisiveness, Tact, Initiative, Endurance, Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Loyalty, and Enthusiasm.
3. Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “Humility,” https://www.etymonline.com/word/humility.
4. Google Staff, “Google Books Ngram Viewer,” n.d., Google Books, https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=humility&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=15&smoothing=4&case_insensitive=true.
5. Dacher Keltner, “Don’t Let Power Corrupt You,” Harvard Business Review, October 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/10/dont-let-power-corrupt-you.
8. David Owen and Jonathan Davidson, “Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?” Brain, February 12, 2009, https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/132/5/1396/354862.
11. Michael Hennerlly, “The Reflective Leader: A Major Lesson From the Memoirs of U.S. Grant” Foreign Policy, December 1, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/12/01/the-reflective-leader-a-major-lesson-from-the-memoirs-of-u-s-grant.
13. Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, “The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders,” Harvard Business Review, May 12, 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/05/the-best-leaders-are-humble-leaders.
14. David Effelsberg, Marc Solga, and Jochen Gurt, “Getting Followers to Transcend Their Self-Interest for the Benefit of Their Company: Testing a Core Assumption of Transformational Leadership Theory,” Journal of Business and Psychology 29, no. 1 (2014).