In 2005, I attended a business event in which President Elect Joe Biden (Senator Biden at the time) headlined a slate of political speakers. He was by far the most engaging of them all and the most able to connect with us on a human level. Throughout the years that followed, as I watched him give numerous interviews and campaign speeches, my admiration for his warmth and authenticity grew.
I particularly remember a 2015 episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in which Biden addressed the tragic losses of his first wife and daughter in a car crash, and of his son Beau to brain cancer. He spoke about Beau very lovingly and relayed a self-deprecating quote from his dad: “You know you’re a success as a parent when you turn and look at your child and realize they turned out better than you.” Despite holding the nation’s second highest office, he seemed to have no qualms about sharing his pain and vulnerabilities.
There’s a myth among some people in positions of power that leadership requires a tough exterior and no signs of humility. To me, this is a dangerous approach, because it means that there aren’t any internal checks on potential abuses of authority. Someone who, on the other hand, approaches leadership with a healthy dose of modesty is more likely to empathize with others and to know which behaviors aren’t furthering group goals. In my opinion, it takes more strength to let down one’s guard from time to time than to constantly keep it up.
My dad is another person I look up to who consistently keeps himself honest, despite his great success as a graphic designer. He’s best known for having designed the logo for the band Chicago, and when he was asked to stand up in the middle of their concert to be recognized for his work, he respectfully remained seated. For him, the reward for hard work is not praise and admiration, but rather the satisfaction of bringing joy and beauty to others.
Expanding on the quote from Biden’s dad, I think that success is evident when you see something better than yourself not just in your kids, but in everyone you encounter. This mindset enables leaders to see, for example, that a team member or a partner can provide a particular skill or capability that the organization doesn’t already have. It may seem counterintuitive to some, but without a sense of humility, it’s impossible to maximize group strength.