Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels,
each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels,
and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2008).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Leadership and Humility

I asked Jeff Zoul, a friend who writes about school leadership, if there was advice he would share with the leaders who read my blog.  Enjoy!
Humility—and How I Achieved It!
Last week at our church, I was reminded of two key traits exhibited by hugely successful leaders, according to Jim Collins. In his blockbuster book, Collins famously posited that leaders at the very top of their game—those known as “Level 5” leaders—possess a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. Our pastor was speaking on the topic of humility and began by explaining he had preached on the topic many times: in front of student groups, in several churches across the country, and in our own church. “In fact,” he said, with his characteristic wry smile, “I daresay that I am an expert on the topic.”

This elicited the intended chuckle and it also reminded me of how difficult it can be as a leader of a school—or any organization—to exude a driving will to succeed while simultaneously maintaining a personal aura of humbleness. Truly great school leaders are relentless, unyielding, hold fast to a clear vision, and expect others within the organization to follow their lead. They demonstrate, model, expect, and insist on a commitment to excellence and a will to achieve. At the same time, these same leaders exhibit personal humility, which John Stott defines as, “the noble choice to forego your status, deploy your resources, or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.” It strikes me that our very finest school leaders constantly demonstrate each of these three servant actions so that others (primarily teachers and students) can achieve great things.

I have worked with hundreds of principals across the nation in recent years, many of whom I admire for the humble way in which they deflect recognition for their schools’ success, attributing it instead to parents, teachers, other administrators, and students. One small, simple—yet powerful—way that many of these effective school leaders exhibit personal humility is through the language they employ, specifically their intentional pronoun use of “we” and “our” in place of “I” and “my.” For example, I often hear principals say things like, “I have faculty meetings every month” or “My math teachers are really doing a great job of…” Obviously, such comments do not suggest that these principals are wild megalomaniacs focused solely on themselves. In fact, many outstanding principals regularly make similar statements quite innocently when speaking about the schools they lead. Still, I think the subtle shift to, “We have faculty meetings every month” and “Our math teachers are really doing a great job of…” used consistently over time, creates an atmosphere of teamwork, collaboration, collegiality, and service, and is an admirable trait of humble servant leaders.

The way we use language can be powerful, behooving us to choose our words with intention. Of course, the trait of humility can be a tricky thing as our pastor reminded us, and the language we employ only goes so far. Merely changing the word “I” in this blog post to “we,” for example, does little toward communicating a message of true humility! Authentically humble leaders go beyond language and by their very nature forgo their status, deploy their resources, and use their influence on a regular basis for the good of those they lead. I have met so may school leaders I admire lately, many for their professional will and others for their genuine personal humility. Of course, the very finest among them, as Collins suggests, demonstrate both.

In closing, to paraphrase our pastor, since I’m writing about humility, I’m probably not qualified to do so; rather, I will leave you with a quote on the subject from Phillip Brooks, which was included in our pastor’s sermon notes:

“The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is."

You can follow Jeff @jeffzoul on Twitter


  1. This is a great read! There is however no humbler leader than Jeff Zoul. As an employee, I can vouch that he recognized and praised his staff, his students, and his communiity members on a daily basis. Never seeking personal recognition only school wide advancement . A leader who inspired 4 teachers to become county TOTY under his leadership and a leader who knew all 800 students by name (greeted them daily with a handshake - to let them know they were important ) Humility at its finest!

  2. Wow, Jeff! I'm proud to say I knew you when . . .

    Geneva Koehler Yelle
    Foreign Language Chair
    Frontier Regional
    South Deerfield, MA

  3. Wow, thanks for these “humbling” comments; Jenny, great hearing from you! As a follow up to all, here are descriptions of both “Personal Humility” and “Professional Will” as listed by Collins in Good To Great and exhibited by what he calls “Level 5” leaders. I’m a long way from where I need to be on most of the descriptors on both lists myself, but these are certainly goals worth striving for:

    PERSONAL HUMILITY is described as: No airs of self-importance, Shy, Compelling Modesty, Reserved nature, Mild-mannered, Gracious, Likes anonymity, Self-effacing, Channels ego needs into the organization

    PROFESSIONAL WILL is described as: Fearless, Ferocious resolve, Stoic determination, Ambitious for institution, Willful, Inner intensity to make something the best, Won’t take easy path

    Jeff Zoul


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