Retaining Leadership Humility:

Being a Good Leader Doesn’t Require Being a Bad Person

CAPT John “Coach” Havlik, U.S. Navy SEAL (Retired), led special operations teams around the world during his 31-year naval career. He is currently CEO of JRH Consulting in Tampa, FL, and Special Advisor for Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company in Asheville, NC. You can learn more at; @CoachHavlik.

 In the recently released book “The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance”, my co-author Bill Treasurer and I identify “hubris” (aka….HUGE self-ego) as the single most lethal leadership flaw of all leaders, at any level, in any organization. Our goal in writing the book was to help those in charge recognize the signs that their own self-importance may (or is) getting out of hand, plus offer seasoned tips, advice, and strategies towards becoming (and staying) an effective, confident and humble leader.

One of my best jobs in the Navy was when I was assigned as the Executive Officer (XO) of an overseas special operations unit, responsible for the management of the unit’s day-to-day activities. As the XO, I was the second-in-command, with only the Commanding Officer (CO) being senior to me in both rank and authority. I was also the command’s “bad cop”, spending most of my time dealing with all the negative and punitive issues of the unit well before it (hopefully) ever got to the CO’s attention.

After a couple of months of being chained to my desk and “IN” basket, I finally had an afternoon where I could do a “walkabout” and meet/talk with my sailors. In one department, I had one of my junior sailors say to me that “leadership at this command doesn’t know what’s happening.” Now this phrase is a common naval euphemism used by sailors to highlight their belief that those in charge don’t have a clue of what’s happening in and around their respective unit, and while I had uttered something similar at a few of my previous assignments, now one of my sailors was talking about ME! So instead of letting my hubris get the best of me by overreacting and yelling at him, I thanked him for his honesty, finished my walkabout, and went back to my office to try and figure out what I was missing and what I needed to do as a leader to better understand what exactly was happening around my command.

How will I use my leadership power?”



Here Are the Two Things I Did:

(1) Every Friday afternoon, I made time in my busy schedule to push away from my desk, and “walk the deck plates” while inspecting the weekly Field Day (aka……unit cleanup). This allowed me to interact with my sailors while ensuring that the unit and its’ spaces were clean before going home for weekend liberty. During these walkabouts, I made it a point to meet all my sailors, look them in the eye, shake their hands, and learn their full names, their backgrounds, their families, and most importantly, the issues that were affecting them (and ultimately the command). I was amazed at what I learned, and how positively my sailors responded to me because I was taking the time to learn about them.

(2) I was (and still am) horrible with names, especially first names. The military makes it easy for mental slackers like me by assigning everyone a rank and then affixing their last names on their uniforms for easy reference. What they don’t help you with is that individual sailor’s first name, because conventional military protocol deems it unprofessional for military members to call each other by their first names. I wanted to change that, so during one of our seasonal uniform/haircut inspections, I made it a point to walk through the ranks of my sailors, shake their hands, look them in the eyes and call them by their first name, and not by the traditional rank and last name greeting. Of the approximately 180 assigned personnel, I remembered the first names of all my sailors except for one. As I stood in front of that one sailor (and my command) trying to guess what his first name was for what seemed like several minutes, I finally relented and apologized to him because I really didn’t know what his first name was. He laughed, accepted my apology and then stated that the only reason I didn’t know his first name was because he hadn’t been in my office for being in trouble. The kicker of this story was that several months later this same sailor was selected as the command’s Sailor of the Year! How ironic it was to me that despite my best efforts, the only first name I didn’t know of all my personnel was the one of my very best sailor!

The bottom line as a leader is that you need to make time to get up from your desk, leave your hubris in your office, do a walkabout and talk to your people. They ultimately have the solutions to any/all issues you may encounter in whatever profession you’re in, but you the leader must have the internal fortitude to turn off your ego and learn to learn directly from them. It’s truly unbelievable what you will grasp because it ultimately highlights how much you as the boss really don’t know! Additionally, it will also help you answer the book’s critical question “How will I use my leadership power?”


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