Breeding Enemies with Success + Humility in Leadership

It is said by some that there must be balance in all things.  Good versus Bad, Positive versus Negative, Light versus Dark.  I have come to ponder this recently.  I would like balance in life…like anyone. An 80 hour work week followed by 80 hours of fun and play would be awesome. Unfortunately the world does not work like that and I personally believe that balance is a myth for the most part.  (But that is another story)

In the last 6 months I have become increasingly aware of persons that were previously colleagues or friends, perform actions that undermine my success. This idea of balance came to mind and it has troubled me greatly. I recently spoke with a friend who is the CEO of a $65 million dollar company. I asked him if he had found this to be true.  He affirmed that it is has absolutely been true for him. We shared stories on the subject for a bit.  It was refreshing that I was not alone in this, but disheartening to think of the future. 

I have made lots of mistakes over the years and I know I will make more. Those mistakes have taught me great lessons.  Lessons that I believe have helped contribute to some of my success.  I do not claim to be a successful person.  I look at what I have done alongside so many other capable people and I feel quite small. So I wonder to myself, if the little success that has followed me can bring such an opposing force, what will the future bring?

I am not usually a fan of the lists of leadership qualities. You have all seen them.  “The XX Leadership Qualities Essential to Success”. Just input your favorite number and you will find a list on the Internet. I think they have their purpose, but there are successful leaders out there that run the whole gamut of good and bad on these lists. The one quality though I am not sure I have ever read in these lists for a successful leader is humility. Let me explain:

Having some humbleness in a leader would:

  • Prevent one from spreading false rumors
  • Prevent one from saying things that make them appear more powerful, such as supposedly being privy to something that others do not know
  • Help one to recognize the good in others
  • Help one to downplay the bad in others, because they know they have many weaknesses and made similar mistakes.
  • Prevent one from putting blame on others because they are no longer in the same circle of success
  • Prompt one to help others who have made similar mistakes you have
  • Prevent one from taking joy or benefiting in any way from another’s misfortune

Humbleness does not mean one is melancholy. Some of the definitions of humbleness include: being conscious of one’s failings, not being arrogant, being courteous, and being respectful.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “You may have enemies whom you hate, but not enemies whom you despise. You must be proud of your enemy: then the success of your enemy shall be your success too.”

I hope that as leaders we can express some form of humbleness, not seek the misfortune of others and I hope that we can all make friends of our enemies.  

I would love to hear your thoughts, stories and comments on this subject below and if you like this message, please share on the social media channels.

Cheers to your success!

About Todd Nielsen

Todd Nielsen helps organizations create miracles of success and profitability through the power of execution. Having served as Vice-President, President, Chief Operations Officer, Chief Strategy Officer, and Chief Executive Officer of organizations, he has learned how to create a culture that "Gets Things Done." He is passionate about leadership, and is a dynamic and inspirational speaker.


  1. Ashit Luthra says:

    Dear Todd,
    Thank you for a wonderful post. My understanding of leadership is that we must follow our own dreams and convince our teams to tag along. If we are single minded, passionate and persevere, we will succeed. The envy starts when others see us succeeding when their passions for their very own dreams have faded away. This is usually caused by a lack of effort and perseverance. And this is the time when attempts are made to detract and discourage us. While conceding your point on humility, I would add civility to it, for even the most unpalatable things can be said with empathy in a polite way.

    I play golf and have captained club and national teams both as a player and non player to a fair degree of success. There came a time when every buddy who ever beat me in golf – and there are legions of these – decided that my results could only be attributed to luck and that they could achieve the same. Success does not come by accident. My friends forgot efforts made to conduct trials, to chose players with strong mental attitudes, mentor and work with them for months to have a fair shot at success. On failing, when their leadership skills were examined, they invariably blamed, luck or its lack, the players, the conditions and sometimes even me! Never did they talk about a lack of effort or the mistakes made by them.

    The lessons drawn include that we must unwaveringly set our sights on our very own lode star and accept the fact that many will deride our success and even try to put hurdles in our way!

  2. Hello Todd, I can feel the thud, thud of a pounding heart as you write about the dilema faced when your success leads others to suspect or even purport something less than the truth. Some great advise here that is a challenge at times to live up to.
    In regards to choosing “humility” as the word to describe the strength to hold oneself in check – I think that’s a great choice. Here’s a quote from Liz Straus, “Humility is not about deprivation. Humility is about more, not less. A humble heart gives more, has more room, sees more good, and is more generous.” and another “Humility does not bring itself down. It raises others up higher yet. A humble heart can hold up a chin. For a heart to do less would be to devalue everyone. Humility is about giving value, not taking it away.” Liz said more in her post about business/success/personal identity and humility.
    I think the first step to seeing enemies become friends is to no longer see them as enemies, but as friends.

  3. Howard Elton says:

    We cannot hide our own giftedness. It will surface to the top no matter what. And others will see it. Often that breeds envy and competition where we intend neither. Contrarily, when we see greatness in others, we are compelled to set their stage and train the spotlight on them because we find such fulfillment in their success. That is the private – behind the scenes – joy of leadership. Sadly, our motive in this is often greatly misunderstood and misinterpreted. The humility that drives our motives and actions is often seen as weakness, as has been pointed out by others. My own experience has shown me two outcomes from this struggle. One, the arrogance and hard-nosed tactics that produce results are often rewarded – exacerbating the adversarial spirit between leaders who should be on the same team. And two, the arrogant, hard-nosed people go too far, and are either censured, re-assigned to a harmless role, or even fired. Both outcomes have caused me grief and personal inner struggle regarding my role as a leader. As a leader, I am an architect of the culture. It is my duty to architect a healthy work environment founded on principles of character, trust, integrity, teamwork, and respect. When this doesn’t work out in spite of my best efforts, it feels like failure and causes me to step back and reassess why I am leading.

  4. Randy Ostler says:

    A good leader recognizes the strenths of others and combines them to make them successful. Recognition for success is pushed down to build confidence and growth in the team. This can be perceived as humility, or just modesty.
    If your efforts are seemed intent on helping others succeed – you become everyone’s most important ally.
    Unfortunately, the world fears that you are competing with them. Your success denotes their failure. Any environment based on fear will have frustrating results.
    In any organization, developing conflict resolution skills and problem solving skills as a team is always thwarted by the fear of getting blamed for problems. Get rid of that fear and develop a constructive approach to identifying and resolving problems increases trust.
    It is very difficult for people who have seen a leader dedicated to helping them solve their problems and make them more successful in their work – turn and stab them in the back.

  5. Beverly Kile says:

    Although I realize this blog is about leadership, I believe you could replace “Leadership” with “Friendship” and the article would be equally powerful. There is nothing like success or misfortune to find out who your real friends are and the same goes for the business world. I believe most people in general could use a bit more humility, which in turn would reduce the amount of pain we are all subject to. The pain just seems worse when it comes from those we respect or admire such as leaders, friends and of course family.

    • That is a really good point Beverly. In my case the ones that have saught to damage my success were some people who I highly respected. We need to evaluate our “friends” who cannot be with us through bad times and good times need.

  6. It is for some of us, a difficult thing to walk the thin thin line called confidence. That line that separates humility from arrogance. If too humble, people will tend to find our self-effacing nature annoying, and maybe even unbelievable. On the other hand, when we are so full of confidence that it spills over everyone around like an exuberant drunk spilling his beer on all he comes near, we invite criticism.
    It seems human nature drives us to spend an inordinate amount of time judging the “worthiness” of others. I get your point about lists, we do seem to love lists. My shortest and favorite list is treat others with kindness, understanding, and forgiveness. If you do this, all the other lists become irrelevant. Interesting how difficult it is to just do these three things – consistently.
    He who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.

    • Your comments are right on John. In this post, humbless was the best word I could think of to come up with to hopefully prevent leaders from judging others wrongly and doing things that undermine their success. Being respectful., not judging, recognizing that no one is perfect, having joy in other’s success is all a part of not being the person that is trying to undermine someone else’s success. Thanks for your comments John, always a pleasure to hear from you.

  7. I believe that familiarity (can) breed contempt, and may be a play a part of undermining behavior. Being humble is great and I agree one should be, but it will not cut the horns off some of the demons in the workplace. At least my workplace. For these people, isn’t it best to confront the situation directly and professionally?

    • Good point Sally. I was not trying to really talk about how to solve the problem, more how to hopefully prevent it. Not treating others how you have been treated and (Like you said) confronting them in a professional way could definetly help to remedy the contempt.

  8. As much as I think I am humble about my position or status, I still
    have times where I say things that are far from humble. Although I can identify too many such occasions, I worry that there are many other such instances that I have failed to recognize.


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