The Forgotten Virtue

In listing the many qualities that make a great citizen or leader in a community, we might list confidence, resilience, determination, integrity, fairness, and many other attributes before we land on humility.  Perhaps that is due to its very nature.  It makes sense that humility would be the forgotten trait on the list.  After all, how far can we get by being humble in 2017?  Our own school’s mission tasks us with leading confidently, not humbly.

For over a century, our students have been asked to work hard, to take risks, and to pick themselves up and try again.  I suspect that the way we go about these endeavors looks a little different in the 21st century than in the days of Ward Belmont, but our girls and young women have always been asked to lead the way and stand up for what they believe.  Our emerging leaders may be judged harshly, if they are less than perfect.  They are expected to know a little more, to be a little quicker, and to have a solution to every challenge.  That is why admitting to chinks in the leadership armor is essential.

Humility seems to be in short supply these days, and I am wondering if we don’t need it now more than ever.  Ironically, great confidence is required for us to be humble.  The fact is, we don’t have all the answers to our problems or even to most of them.  A more elegant truth may arise from the collective wisdom of the group.  Maybe you are the leader, but the credit should go to everyone else for helping to avoid a potential crisis.  Being humble does not imply self-doubt, but rather self-awareness.  We must understand that we are not accomplishing anything alone.

Confidence, then, is not in opposition to humility — hubris is, and we all know where that takes us.  Humility is a virtue, which naturally makes it difficult to attain.  As soon as we are patting ourselves on the back for being humble, we have missed the mark.  It feels good to take a little credit now and then when things are going well.  We all deserve that.  But sooner or later, the tables will turn and something will happen for which we may not want credit.

I am forever reminded in this job how much I have to learn from our students.  Their courage in admitting mistakes and vulnerabilities is inspiring.  We house as many varieties of leadership styles as we have students in each class.  At Harpeth Hall, we have written our own definition of leadership.  She is someone “who is aware of the value of each individual in a community and accepts her responsibility to shape the community for the better.”

Our definition continues, “she is always learning.”  She may be swept up by a brilliant solution articulated by a classmate or moved by another student’s poem in creative writing.  Our hope is that the more she knows, the more she realizes how small that fraction of knowledge is to the whole.  She may comprehend the vastness of the world with a healthy respect, and appreciate her connection to it.  And that brings us back to her calling to lead confidently, honestly, and always humbly.



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