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The Value of Humility as A Leader: A Mastership Thesis by Master Travis Dillow

Posted: February 17, 2017


Humility is the one of those topics in leadership that very few people really like to talk about. In fact it is probably one of the strangest—or rather complex characteristics of a leader. I believe that every leader should have a certain level of humility as it is really defined, but at the same time, the misconception of humility when put into practice by a leader can cripple his or her leadership. Humility is not the act of feeling poorly about one’s self; in fact it is not even the act of thinking bad about yourself, your skills, or your abilities. Well-intentioned leaders who think they are developing a stellar character trait as a leader often practice this type of false humility or misconceived humility. Humility is however, the quality of being modest, reverential, even obsequiously submissive, and never being arrogant. When leaders try to shape their leadership personality under the false definition of humility, it takes away one of the core principles that a leader needs to show to his or her team: confidence. Let’s break down this definition a bit, and talk through each of the points in the above definition to help us get a greater perspective on humility in leadership.

Being modest: Modesty is not weakness. Often times, leaders mistake being modest for being weak, but that is never the case. In fact, some of the most powerful leaders in history have been really modest men or women. Modest simply means to be unassuming in the estimation of your achievements or abilities. This is the leader who does not assume a right or position just because of what he or she has accomplished in the past, or believes he or she can accomplish in the future. You will recognize a modest leader when you see them; they are someone who has a general track record of under promising and over delivering. This is a leader who does have an understanding that he or she possesses the abilities to make things happen, achieve great things, and bring vision to fruition. But more than all of that, this leader knows that it is going to take hard work, dedication, and discipline to accomplish anything. A modest leader knows that he didn’t get where he is by simply knowing everything, but by putting in the time to learn as he goes.

I like to define a modest leader as someone who understands what I call the “windshield principle.” You see a leader who is running based on the accomplishments of his or her past, and has an assuming mind-set that because of they have “been there and done that” they will naturally be able to own any project that is put in front of them. This person is like an individual who drives a car only looking in the rear-view mirror, moving forward based on where they have been. That may get you down the road for a few miles, but eventually you are going to wind up in a ditch. You can’t keep moving forward simply by looking at where you have been. A modest leader understands that a windshield is 95% glass and only 5% mirror to look back. A safe driver uses the windshield to stay focused on the road ahead, and watch for new obstacles that they will have to maneuver around while occasionally checking the rear view mirror to get their bearing and make sure that everything in the past is still okay. Much like this, a modest leader looks at the journey ahead with complete focus and concentration, knowing that new challenges and decisive action may be needed to keep the forward momentum. The modest leader uses the past simply as an experience to use to help them get where they are going.

So, how does this break down in leadership? What are a few simple things a leader can do to make sure he or she is moving in a modest direction and carrying with him or her one of the traits of humility?

  1. They never assume they know how to do it. This is really important, because no matter how many times you have done it before, there will always be new challenges. When a leader approaches a project with the arrogance of “been there done that,” it leads his or her team to assume that it is going to be a cake walk. When there is a new challenge after the first turn, the team will begin to think that the wheels are falling of the project and lose confidence in their leader. Humility is understanding the past—learning from what you have done—but also respecting the future and getting your mind wrapped around the fact that there will be some new challenges that you are going to have to lead your team through, and quite possibly learn how to overcome while you are on the road. A modest leader’s pep talk to his team may sound something like this: “Hey team, we are going to go at this project with everything we have! I have complete confidence that together we will get it done. There are bound to be some obstacles along the way, and at times we are all going to be learning how to overcome them together. Just know this: as your leader, I am committed to success, and I know what that looks like. What I need you all to do is help us get there!” That is the language of a modest leader that also sets forth confidence is his or her team.
  2. They never act like they have all the answers. There is not a single leader in any situation that has ever had all the answers before the journey begins. To act like you do immediately communicates false confidence to your team. Some of the best leaders in history have known how to say “I don’t know, but I will find out.” When it comes to modest leadership, the leader has to first be really honest with him or herself. You are not that smart, and you have not achieved the things you have in the past by just being a smart person. Nobody is that good, especially in isolation. It always takes a team to make great things happen. A modest leader is honest about what they don’t know. In fact, an honest leader is always on a journey, asking questions to find out what they don’t know. I would much rather follow a person who is putting forth constant effort to find the right answers to the questions, rather than ignore the stuff they don’t know and try to accomplish something half-hearted, just to appear like they know everything.
  3. Always involve the team in some decisions: A modest leader understands that even though he or she may be the leader, there are team members who are gifted in areas that he or she isn’t. A leader that leads in isolation and simply feeds orders down to the team is a leader that is saying “I’ve got this,” and does not depend on the collective wisdom and experience of the team for guidance and help. A modest leader is always anxious to get input and insight from those that he has surrounded himself with. Discussion with team, asking the right questions, and considering the thoughts of other people are a great mark in a modest leader’s life. All the experience in the world from one person does not substitute for the collective experience of a small group of team members. The modest leaders will see this as one of his or her greatest assets.

Reverential:  This being another great mark of a humble leader again is so often misunderstood. Many would think that reverential is simply being quiet and somber, but in reality some of our greatest leaders of the past have been very reverential people. Reverence is the act of being “humbly below,” as I like to call it. This is the leader who understands that no matter how much they have learned or accomplished, they still position themselves in a manner of reverence to those around them. A reverent leader is a person who brings life and energy to his team, not always by cheers and back-slaps, but rather with the quiet and humble, “I could not do this without you” mindset. When a leader is reverential, he or she works as hard as those around him, and never says a word about it. A reverent leader realizes that those above and beneath him in the organization chart also have lives of their own. They have stresses, issues, families, friends and hobbies that mean the world to them. This leader is able to frame up in his or her mind that the world does not revolve around them, and those on their team really have no need to worship or feel sorry for him. The reverent leader sees the completeness of the team members for everything it is worth. It is the leader who understands that well rested team members actually produce more in the end. It is the leader who understands that high team and work place morale produces better employees. The reverent leader is the opposite of a drill sergeant, and most times is more respected by those people that he leads. Like always, I am pretty big on application, so here are three ways you can identify a reverent leader, simply by watching his or her team.

  1. Teammates speak and share things about their personal life to their leader: You can tell a reverent leader when the people he leads have the confidence to talk to them about the everyday things of their life, and especially some personal matters. When you see team members having outside-of-the-workplace conversations with their leader, then that tells you one thing for sure: that leader has invested into the lives of those that he leads. Not all leaders gain this trust and chemistry with the team they lead, but reverent leaders almost always do.
  2. Teammates work hard to protect the health of their leader: When you see teammates making authentic inquiries of their leader, about his health, family, rest, etc., then you know that that is a leader who has taken the posture of reverence around his or her team. In many situations, you will find leaders that are removed from their team, and thus their team is removed from them. It is the “workplace” connection, and that is all. When a leader is practicing reverence, he understands that his hard work will pay off, and eventually be noticed by those who are closest to him. He or she is a leader that doesn’t have to broadcast about their work load or schedule; in fact you will find his or her team interfering and doing everything they can to lighten the load of their leader, so he can do what he does best…practice relational leadership.
  3. The team protects their leader: This also has some to do with loyalty, but when you see a team getting defensive over their leader, you know that they are being led by a person who is humbly below. A team will protect a leader that is humble and reverent enough to show his authentic side. When this happens, the team will rally around their leader and may take up arms with anyone who tries to take advantage of, attack, or speak ill against him or her. How nice would it be as a leader to have a team that surrounds you and says “if you want to get to him, you have to come through us first.”?

Obsequiously submissive: There are two ways to be submissive to those above and under your leadership. One is the angry or arrogant submissiveness; the other is obsequiously submissive, which simply means a quiet and subtle submissive attitude that understands the appropriate times to just do what they are asked to do. This is the leader who is humble enough to not always have to give the orders, and when given things to do they submit with the full understanding that it is for the greater cause. It requires setting the ego aside, and allowing yourself to be led in ways that communicate team dynamics, and humility to everyone around you. Here are a few steps on how you can make sure that you are in a position to implement this type of submissive behavior.

  1. Respond to others like you want your team to respond to you. We have all known leaders that demand a certain level of respect from those they lead, but offer none of the same to the ones that lead them. It is a great practice to respond to those above you the same way you want your team to respond to you. In fact, to visit an old point, you teach what you know, but reproduce who you are. If you want to lead a submissive team, then you must be a submissive leader.
  2. Lead others like you want to be lead: If you don’t appreciate how your supervisors are leading you, then make sure you don’t lead your team the same way. Again, the principle is the same; all of this is contagious. If you start practicing submissiveness and leadership to your team the same way that you want to be led by your team leader, then you will start to see a difference.
  3. Look for things that need to be done, and do them: This is also summed up in one phrase: be a self-starter. A submissive leader develops the ability to look around and see what needs to be done, then does it without having to be asked. This is probably the greatest form of submissive leadership. It is really easy to respond to a request when you are already doing them, or have a track record of getting things done without being told to do it.

It is really important to realize that everyone who leads is also led by someone. Even the President of the United States has to answer to congress. The sooner you learn to be a submissive leader, the sooner you will see humility sneak into your life and the life of the team that you lead. If you are desiring leadership in your life, it must start with you being a great follower. There has not been anyone in history that has made a difference through their leadership without first being a great follower. Learn while you follow, learn while you lead, and in the end, don’t be afraid to say “yes sir” or yes “ma’am,” roll up your sleeves and get the work done.

Never be arrogant: Arrogance is the opposite of humility. In fact, arrogance is having an exaggerated sense of your own worth or ability. You are not that good, and there are those out there that are better than you. An arrogant leader tends to make a ton of mistakes because he or she is blinded by his own arrogance. He or she approaches life and leadership with a chip on his or shoulder, and expects everyone to respect him or her simply due to his or her title. That may have worked in the past, but in this post-modern world, people generally don’t respect titles, but they do respect character and personality. The arrogant leader relies 100% on his or her title and possibly experience to gain the influence and respect of the team that they lead. It takes a very little person to demand respect of his or her team, it takes a great person of character to earn respect by humble leadership from the ones that they lead. Arrogance is quite possibly one of the most dangerous cancers that can eat away at the tissue of leadership in any individual’s life. Is there a cure for arrogance? Can an arrogant leader change his or her ways? Well in my experience, I have only found one thing that will change a leader from being arrogant, and that is brokenness. Arrogance is a disease of the heart, not a tactical leadership quality. Because of this, only something that truly affects the heart will cure a leader of arrogance. Chances are, if you an arrogant leader and are reading this document, then you don’t realize you are arrogant. So let me help you come to grips with the reality that you may be avoiding. Here is a short list of some characteristics of an arrogant leader.

  1. When an arrogant leader attends a conference or seminar, his first thought is “I know more than the person speaking right now,” or “They should have asked me to speak at this thing.”
  2. An arrogant leader is really good at self-promotion: making sure all the eyes are on him or her because they are the best thing to look at and listen to.
  3. Arrogant leaders cover up mistakes instead of fix them.
  4. Arrogant leaders have a really hard time actually leading their teams. They lead teams that are not submissive, give them attitude, and often times don’t respond to criticism with great attitude.
  5. Arrogant leaders are full of excuses, but never the truth on why.

Arrogant leaders are all over the place, leading some of the most dysfunctional teams that you have ever seen. If you find yourself with one of these teams, or as one of these leaders, the first thing you need to do is admit you have a problem, then seek out others to speak truth into your life about what and how you need to improve. Yes, what I am saying is humble yourself enough to allow others to break you, out of the ashes of brokenness comes humility.

Humility is a great characteristic of a leader, and humble leaders go on in life to do amazing things, and normally don’t care who gets the credit for it. People love humility and are drawn to it, people run to be led by a person cloaked in humility. Humility is contagious, energetic, and always works hard to get the job done.



BEING MODEST: Being modest should be a constant awareness as instructors and black belts achieve new and higher levels of rank. With increased levels of status comes increase levels of responsibilities. This means that as a leader in the ATA, you will be responsible for helping more junior students achieve their levels of success in their training and goals in Taekwondo.  A modest instructor will also realize that taking on these new levels of responsibilities means that there is more to learn, and will be open to new ideas on how to grow into to the higher level of leadership they have earned. Too often than not though, instructors act as if they know more than they actually do, and share ideas and information that they have heard about from other seniors, but have now particular experience in the area of expertise themselves. I’m dumbfounded when I visit with other instructors who spend time and money at a seminar learning from the legends of the ATA, and leave the seminar complaining that it doesn’t exactly meet their expectations. They then often state how they will do it so much better. One seminar does not make you a professional at a particular skill. It is after training for many hours, and dissecting that skill set from teaching it to others, and learning the practical use of that skill, and seeing how anyone at any level of skill can apply and use that skill. They should be humble in acknowledging that they are still a student at that skill, and be open from others about how to continue improving at that skill.

REVERENTIAL: The perfect example of a reverential leader is Grand Master Soon Ho Lee. I got a chance to see how truly humble of a leader Grand Master Lee is during his first year of being the new Grand Master, when he was making his vision tour and visited Las Vegas. He came to a regional tournament that my instructor was hosting and I was brand new being an RCT. Instead of strutting around and demanding that things should be done a certain way, and saying that people should recognize that he is the new Grand Master, he spent the entire day meeting the families and students and building relationships. When he visited with the instructors or school owners, he would simply ask questions about what they were doing in the ATA. Being led by Eternal Grand Master Lee, he had learned it was more important to gather information, spend time analyzing and dissecting it with his team of seniors that all shared the same vision for the ATA, and then apply what needs to do to improve the organization, or what just simply needs to stay the same.

I cannot begin to imagine the stress and pressure he must have felt having to fill the shoes of Eternal Grand Master Lee. There were so many people that would compare everything he would do to the way Eternal Grand Master Lee would have done it. Therefore, he began his journey with the vision tour as a reverential leader. That year he visited every area there were ATA schools, and gathered a ton of information, but also came to be known as one of the most loving and humble and respected leaders of the ATA.

Obsequiously submissive: Being at major events, there are so many different levels of rank and authority that are around. For example, one person that more people turn to for guidance in the ATA again is Mr. Wolff, the CEO of the ATA. He is only a 5th degree black belt, but Grand Master Soon Ho Lee himself values and turns to Mr. Wolff for guidance and knowledge. There is no doubt that he is by far one of the most experienced people in the martial arts industry, but just never acquired the rank for his own personal reasons. This should be an example for all leaders and instructors to understand that they don’t just take instruction from someone that is higher rank than them, because that doesn’t necessarily mean that that person is more experienced than them.

Chief Master Clarke once said at a leadership camp that the number one leadership skill that an instructor must possess is to be able to “Think on Their Feet!” For example, if an instructor is leading a class, they not only need to be aware of what is going on in the class, but also be aware of what is going on in the whole studio. They need to be able to notice if a new person walks into the building. If something bad were to happen, which always will, they need to be able to maintain control over everything going on. If an instructor wants their junior instructor to also be able to do things without being asked to, they must have already been doing them themselves.

Never be arrogant:  I am amazed by the level of arrogance that some instructors have when achieving certain levels of rank. I once had one of our senior instructors that had just earned his title of being a master call me up to come visit my school. I was open and willing to have him make this visit. When he got to the studio, I was expecting a discussion to the students about the hard work and commitment that goes into becoming a master and how anyone can reach this level of accomplishment. Instead, it was a discussion on how everyone was lucky to be in the presence of him, and also how they should bow and show him the respect for being a master. If anyone calls him by the wrong title and not by the title of Master, they would have to do push-ups. This was a true example of arrogance. Needless to say, that Master has lost everything and is barely around the ATA anymore, and definitely not respected when he shows up.

There once was a saying, “A king never has to tell people he is a king and how great he is because he would have a queen that does it for him.” When I want to know about a senior instructor and their level of success in the ATA, I won’t go directly to that person at first, but look at how many junior instructors he has that are loyal to him and ask them about his level of success. That is where you will get closer to the truth.

The legends of the ATA definitely don’t allow arrogance at the top and live and represent true humility in all ways.


BEING MODEST:  To be modest as an instructor and a high rank in the ATA, I position myself as being a student as often as possible. I not only believe this helps me stay humble as an instructor, but also helps me relate to students more. I am always aware that when teaching martial arts, there is always going to be students that will excel at the material I have learned and am teaching, and will even have better perspectives about applying what has been taught. I am always open to feedback from the student. I also ask questions from others that have trained at the skill, and am open to understand new ways of doing it—not just for myself, but maybe for a student I might have that relates more to that person.

            When it comes to operations of running a martial arts school, I am always open to learn from ones that have “been there and done that.” I am conscious when I am around successful school owners not to talk about what I have done, but to only ask questions and listen. I am amazed that when instructors become school owners, they immediately label themselves as a good business person. Being a good business person does not come with being great at doing a punch and kick, but from an entirely different level of skills. The ATA does a great job at having seminars taught by many successful business people who have succeeded in the martial arts industry. However they aren’t always high ranks in Taekwondo. I have actually consulted and helped junior instructors become school owners that have more business experience than I have, and have gone on to being more successful at running a martial arts school, and I have no problem with opening up to them and then becoming a student.

            REVERENTIAL: I first really learned to have to be a reverential leader when I became a manager of my instructor’s 7 schools and over 25 staff members. It was hard to find the balance of having to be everyone’s BOSS, which no one likes to have and still being one of their senior instructors. To be the humble leader that I needed to be, I had to first always show the respect and loyalty and give credit always to the people I worked for, my instructor and his wife. It takes a lot of personal sacrifice and getting beat up to take the heat for everyone, but after time my team became the shield from that heat. We went through a lot of rough times, but after time and many years staying reverential, I have some of those staff members that don’t even work for us anymore reach out to us for guidance in their work and personal lives.

            Obsequiously submissive: I work very closely with my instructor and his wife. Although I don’t work for them anymore, I work with them on a lot of projects. Whenever I am asked to do a task from them, it will be done without hesitation and immediately with no questions asked as if I did work for them. This is the same when I work with seniors of the ATA at major events. I know if I stay humble and represent this type of leadership, then my junior instructors will follow and perform the same.

            I also have to perform this way with submissive leadership when I am in my own school and asked to do something by my wife. People need to see that I respect her wishes and requests of what needs to be done anytime at the studio so they will respond to her the same. This allows for an equally balanced level of authority we place at our school, and eliminates confusion for all our team members and those that work with us.

            Never be arrogant: I am always aware and conscious of not being an arrogant leader. There are plenty of arrogant instructors around us to learn what not to do. It is not my position to point them out to others, but to just stay silent and humble in my own ways. I however, am not perfect about not being arrogant myself though, and have been warned about being arrogant by the ones closest to me. I believe in having a few select people that I know are loyal to be aware and warn me of the smallest act of arrogance.

            In becoming a Master in the ATA, I will continue my journey to be a humble servant to the ATA and students and families and all involved.  I will continue all my responsibilities such as Regional Chief of Tournaments, and continue to work even harder with this increased level of status to improve the ATA. I will not lessen my training, and will commit myself to being an example that even at a high level of rank and title, one should continue to be committed to his or her daily training.

I will be a humble servant to my family who needs me the most, and never loose site that God and my family come first, and my responsibilities to them as head of the household is most important.