When we think of traits leaders typically exhibit, many come to mind—including strength, charisma, enthusiasm, and vision. One important component is often overlooked: humility. Humility is an attribute of truly great leaders according to Jim Collins in his book Good to Great and in his classic article for Harvard Business Review, “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve.” Humility is more than just being nice; humility means understanding no person acting alone can create a great organization and that every employee is needed in the effort. Humility is the opposite of arrogance, pride, and haughtiness and keeps ego and arrogance from getting in the way of realistic appraisals and good decisions. It is not to be confused with self-deprecation. A telling quote that embodies the attitude of humility comes from Sir Isaac Newton—arguably one of the most accomplished scientists in history—in his letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Humble leaders motivate others by understanding and signaling the importance of others’ contributions. He or she serves as a role model for an organization. Humble leaders aren’t milquetoast; they have strong drive. Dan Baker explains this in his insightful book, What Happy Companies Know: “Humble leaders have powerful egos, meaning appropriate self-esteem as opposed to an over-inflated self-opinion. They are demanding, but driving their demands is a capacity for caring and a desire to help others excel, rather than a desire for personal domination.” Appropriate self-esteem can drive compassionate behavior.
“The chief executive who knows his strengths and weaknesses as a leader is likely to be far more effective than the one who remains blind to them. He also is on the road to humility, that priceless attitude of openness to life that can help a manager absorb mistakes, failures, or personal shortcomings.” —John Adair
Historical examples of humble leaders include Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was plucked from his field by a senatorial delegation informing him he had been chosen to be dictator to save Rome. In spite of the personal hardship, he donned his senatorial toga, called up an army, beat the troublesome Aequi, resigned as dictator, and returned to his farm all within sixteen days!
Colin Powell, in his time as an Army General, was an example of humility. Powell was modest even as a four-star general. To remind himself to avoid the self-importance trap, he kept a sign above his desk with Lincoln’s Civil War comment, “I can make more generals, but horses cost money.” Powell knew the troops and junior officers did the army’s real work. He was humble Humility means understanding no person acting alone can create a great organization and that every employee is needed in the effort.
A 2014 Fast Company article outlines 6 ways humility can make you’re a better leader:
1. BE OPEN TO OTHERS’ OPINIONS
Humble leaders seek input from others to ensure they have all the facts and are making decisions that are in the best interest of the team, Grow says. No one person has all the answers. If you think you do, then it’s probably time to reassess.
2. TEND TO OTHERS’ NEEDS
Rob Nielsen (coauthor of Leading with Humility) says team performance is typically much higher when team members believe their leaders are truly looking out for their best interests. That doesn’t mean hand-holding, but it does mean caring about the environment in which your team is working and ensuring that they have what they need to do a good job.
3. ADMIT MISTAKES
It’s tough to be more transparent and open—even those who consider themselves humble don’t want to look like they’ve messed up. But, as human beings we all make mistakes. When you’re willing to share your own missteps, and how you dealt with and recovered from them, you earn trust from your team, Arron Grow (associate program director of the School of Applied Leadership at the City University of Seattle and author of How to Not Suck as a Manager) says, “I don’t mean that people need to be willing to fall on a sword,” he adds. “But we should own up to what we do. Sometimes it’s good to share that with others—that we’re not infallible.”
4. ACCEPT AMBIGUITY
Many leaders want to control everything. But some things can’t be known up front or beforehand. You have to know when to take charge—or when to let go and not try to force everything to go your way, he says.
Like many leadership skills, humility may not come easy to everyone. That’s why Nielsen says it’s important to engage in self-reflection. One of the most powerful tools is to write in a journal. By chronicling what went well during your interactions or what you could have handled better, you can enhance your perspective and learn from your actions, Nielsen says. There’s almost always room for improvement.
6. LET PEOPLE DO THEIR JOBS
Micromanaging kills morale—and it isn’t very humble. Choose good people, train them, then “get out of the way and let them do their jobs,” Grow says. It can take humility to admit that your way isn’t the only way or even that some people are better at certain roles than you. The humble leader accepts these truths and allow others’ strengths to work for the good of the team or organization without interference, he says.