In Our Humble Opinion: Three Little Words that Inspire “Followship”

A common television sitcom plotline involves the lead character’s inability or unwillingness to say “I love you.” Inevitably, the character will stutter or feign laryngitis or resort to comic diversionary tactics – anything to avoid uttering those three little words.


Sadly, there’s a real-life parallel in the business world, where a lead executive, faced with an unfamiliar situation and needlessly concerned about appearing weak or vulnerable or uninformed, may stumble or become defensive – anything to avoid uttering the three little words, “I don’t know.”

It’s unfortunate – and unnecessary. Time and time again, research bears out that the most effective leaders – those who inspire followership — score high on a humility scale. Indeed, the opposite of humility, arrogance, can be a leader’s undoing. Why CEOs Fail, by David Dotlich and Peter Cairo, describes 11 behaviors that derail executives. The first chapter? “Arrogance.”


A brilliant client achieved C-level status relatively early in her career — she was intelligent, likeable, a good listener and a fair arbiter. Time after time, she not only made tough decisions, but right decisions. This early success, however, led the executive to begin relying solely on her own judgment, reluctant to listen to others. She became self-righteous. Some might even have seen her as arrogant. Before long, she made a few critical mistakes and alienated people around her. Fortunately, after feedback from her boss, peers, and direct reports, she re-discovered her humility – and her professional success. She reverted to the humble behavior that had propelled her to the top.


Humility is the opposite of arrogance. It is the quality of being modest and respectful. A humble person both recognizes when he or she doesn’t know all the answers and acknowledges that fact. In this way, a humble person is supremely self-confident and secure, overcoming insecurities to acknowledge shortcomings.

The best leaders exhibit humility. Indeed, they nurture humility, keeping it at the very core of their leadership style. And when the occasion arises, they never stumble over these three little words, “I don’t know.”

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