by Craig Butera
A humble person is more concerned about what is right than about being right, about acting on good ideas than having the ideas, embracing new truth than defending outdated position, about building the team than exalting self, about recognizing contribution than being recognized for making it.
– The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Stephen M.R. Covey
Countless books, journals, articles, podcasts, and studies exist on the topic of leadership, authored by people from every sector including military leaders, past and present. It is also easy to find lists of the most important leadership traits. In 2019, the US Army added humility back into the Army pre-eminent leadership doctrinal publication, with the update of Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession.
It is a misnomer that humility is thinking less of oneself in a self-deprecating way; instead, I agree with COL(R) Mike Marra, one of my professors at U.S. Army War College, that humility is thinking of oneself less and thus the team (the well-being of its members and accomplishment of its purpose) more. But this is a principled mindset and therefore, difficult to implement. In this article, I will offer some historical context regarding humility’s presence in U.S. Army doctrine and will assert that for the Army to optimally benefit from humility’s re-appearance in ADP 6-22, it would be helpful to operationalize humility as opposed to just describing it. Three ways to do this are through (1) an open mindset, (2) a focus on teams, and (3) establishment of a learning climate.
History of Humility in US Army Doctrine
Amidst the Army’s renumbering, renaming, and restructuring of our doctrinal publications through the last 5 decades, leadership doctrine writers have often included humility. The 321 pages of the 1983 Field Manual (FM) 22-100 Military Leadership mentioned humility four times, while the 98 pages of its 1990 update included it only once. The 2006 FM 6-22 Army Leadership mentioned it twice in 216 pages. Both the 26-page 2012 ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and its more detailed 104-page companion Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-22 did not mention it, but the 2015 FM 6-22 Leader Development (which is still valid and current) reintroduced it into Army doctrine after a three-year hiatus. A resurgence of humility is underway, however; it is mentioned 23 times within the 2019 ADP 6-22 Army Leadership and the Profession!
I wonder if the absence of humility within ADP 6-22 from 2012 – 2019 was due to the aforementioned misnomer that humility is self-deprecation or thinking less or lower of oneself, rather than thinking of oneself less. A 2018 study called The Perceived Impact of Humility on Team Effectiveness: An Empirical Study found that humility has frequently and mistakenly been considered a weakness indicating low self-esteem (Armenio Rego, Miguel Pina E Cunha, and Ace Volkmann Simpson). The 2019 ADP 6-22 humility language seems to acknowledge this possibility, pointing out that humility “exists on a continuum…where excess humility is problematic because it is interpreted as shyness, meekness, passivity, blind obedience, or timidity.”
The first way to operationalize humility is by demonstrating an open mindset, that is an openness to inputs from others. When leaders embrace this mindset, they often consider all alternatives as part of a collaborative process. The opposite of this is a close-minded approach, perhaps because a leader believes their position or authority automatically means their ideas are the best, or that their thinking is the most sound because of their seniority, tenure, or experience. Ultimately, none of these factors should inhibit a leader’s open mindset.
A section within ADP 6-22’s lower-level FM 6-22 Leader Development describes six transitions that apply to Army organizations: (1) leading at the direct level, (2) leading organizations, (3) leading functions, (4) leading integration, (5) leading large organizations, and (6) leading enterprises. In leading large organizations, “A fifth transition happens when leaders operate at the brigade equivalent and higher levels of operational and institutional organizations… humility is a desired characteristic of organizational and strategic leaders who should recognize that others have specialized expertise indispensable to success.”
However, I assert that leaders should not wait until they reach brigade-level or “a fifth transition” to flip on a “humility switch,” either in principle or in practice. Certainly, as leader responsibilities increase over a career, so too will the complexity of the problems they will encounter, and thus the “necessity” to depend on others with expertise also rises. But even junior leaders at the lowest levels encounter problems or challenges where they could benefit from inviting input from their team members (subordinates) as well as other stakeholders who are impacted by the situation and potential solutions. Lacking a humble mindset, leaders will bias towards crafting their own solution and then decisively and wholeheartedly commit towards its execution. That said, I acknowledge that not every problem will be conducive to inviting input from others based on the immediacy of the situation and time available.
Another way leaders can demonstrate an open mindset is by first seeking opinions, viewpoints, and even advice from subordinates who have labored to understand the intricate details of any situation. It is key to accomplish this before expressing their views or position to the organization at-large. When leaders express themselves before their subordinates have offered their views, the likelihood of eliciting broad opinion is low. Said another way, if a leader has established a climate in which their approach is always right and other people’s opposing inputs or viewpoints are wrong, it is likely that subordinates will eventually choose to not even offer their best effort in preparing recommendations or making suggestions. For example, I have served alongside other staff officers who have remarked that they will only put forth 50% effort on a particular project because the leader is not going to listen to their input anyway.
After considering input from teammates, the leader then decides the way ahead and implements the decision through subordinate leaders. While explaining “why” is not a requirement, doing so helps illuminate the leader’s thought process and rationale to the team, thus enabling shared understanding, one of the principles of our Mission Command doctrine. Through this approach, subordinates are then likely to have an opportunity to understand why a leader might not have completely incorporated that subordinate’s recommendation in the eventual decision.
Focus on teams (Do I matter?)
A second way to demonstrate humility is through focusing on teams. In answering “Do I matter,” the leader does NOT individually matter. That is to say, in the context of the well-being of the team members and the accomplishment of the team’s mission, the individual accomplishments of leaders and their career aspirations and likelihood for promotion do not matter. Of course, leaders do matter, in the way that they contribute to the team’s efforts.
How do you then demonstrate that it’s never about you? One way is to transfer and distribute praise for a job well done to those who did most of the work – the team’s members, i.e. a leader’s subordinates. Seldom will the accomplishment of any mission solely be the work of the leader, so even in the instances where the leader does indeed warrant some or even most of the recognition, redistributing recognition and accolades should be a top priority for any leader. The leader’s transfer of praise can exemplify the leader’s emphasis on the team and its mission. Take, for example, the battalion commander complimenting a company commander after the company performed a mission in an exemplary manner. A humble company commander would divert that praise across the outfit, commenting perhaps about the strong contributions from subordinate platoon-level and squad leaders and Soldiers.
A Learning Climate
The third way leaders can demonstrate humility is by creating a learning climate within their outfit and modeling its value for the team. COL(R) Ralph Puckett, Medal of Honor awardee from the Korean War and a living legend within the US Army, is known to say “be proud, but don’t be satisfied.” I take this to mean that we should perennially strive for improvement, which can best occur if we are willing to embody that mindset. Our FM 7-0 Training doctrine states in the seventh step of the eight-step training model that “an after action review (AAR) is a guided analysis of a Soldier’s or organization’s performance, conducted at appropriate times during and at the conclusion of a training event or operation with the objective of improving future performance.” An organization devoid of a learning environment is likely immersed or entering a state of contentment and complacency. These organizations also tend to rest on recent achievements, reducing their focus on future readiness and the innovation necessary for improvement.
An important subset of this learning environment is the leader’s willingness to admit mistakes, while committing to not make that mistake again. Our 1983 and 1990 FM 22-100 Military Leadership publications both described humility only in the context of admitting mistakes. As humans, we will all make mistakes both as leaders and subordinates, and it does not benefit any team to pretend otherwise nor to overlook, suppress, or minimize those mistakes.. The decades-old phrase “zero defects” in the military context is thankfully seldom heard nowadays, and our Mission Command doctrine has supplanted zero-defects with the more dynamic “disciplined initiative.” For example, what better way for a company commander to model to subordinates that he/she wants them to pursue opportunities within the commander’s intent, even if in some instances they get it wrong, than by the commander publicly admitting when he/she makes mistakes? And while our FM 7-0 training doctrine states that “leaders avoid creating an environment of pointing out failures,” there is ample opportunity for making the unit better when leaders acknowledge their mistakes so that leaders, subordinates, and sister-units can avoid repetition.
In conclusion, we should recognize and capitalize on the opportunities for our teams to benefit from the leader’s humility. To enjoy the return of humility, leaders must operationalize humility through an open mindset, a focus on teams, and the establishment of a learning climate. From fire team to combatant command, the benefits of demonstrating humility from the top can percolate deeply throughout the organization. Welcome back humility! We look forward to seeing what a future generation of humble Army leaders can achieve together.
COL Craig Butera is a United States Army Infantry officer with 22 years of service. He is currently assigned to the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, as the Director of the Command And Tactics Directorate.