There are many traits required to be an effective leader. One of the most important is humility, yet this character trait is often misunderstood. Humility is sometimes confused with timidity, quietness, or even with weakness or a poor self-concept, but quite the opposite is true. True humility is embodied by strength and courage. A known quote, often attributed to C. S. Lewis, gives us a clear picture of humility: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” In other words, a person who shows humility has strong self-awareness—they understand and accept their strengths and weaknesses—but they are not focused on themselves. Instead, their focus is on the people around them, showing value for and serving others.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines humility as “the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others; lack of pride.” Dictionary.com describes humility as a “modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.” The important word to notice is “importance.”
One of the dangers of receiving a promotion to or being in the position of leadership is the trap of pride or arrogance. Because a person is given the authority or responsibility to guide and direct others can lead a person to believe that they are more important than others. Arrogance or any air of superiority will quickly drive others away. People are quick to notice and point out any weaknesses in an arrogant person. On the other hand, humility draws people into relationships because they feel valued. People are quick to accept a person of true humility.
Some years ago, Dan Rockwell compared two ends of the spectrum, saying that humble leaders are stronger than arrogant leaders. He listed these differences:
- Humility learns; arrogance knows.
- Humble leaders submit to noble values; they won’t bend. Arrogant leaders bend rules to their advantage.
- Humility listens; arrogance talks.
- Humble leaders serve others; arrogant leaders serve themselves.
- Humble leaders are free to build up others. Arrogant leaders build up themselves.
- Humility opens hearts; arrogance builds walls.
- Humility joins; arrogance stands aloof.
- Humble leaders connect; arrogant leaders disconnect.
Since we define leadership as influence, this ability to influence is built upon a relationship of trust and respect that is a direct result of strong, positive character traits such as humility. A leader demonstrates humility by consistently treating people as equal in value to the him or her self. A humble leader voices appreciation for others and cares about them on a personal level, not as a tool of production. A humble leader says, “How can I help?” and is willing to roll up his sleeves and work alongside the rest of the team members.
If humility is so important to effective leadership, how does one go about growing in the trait? Humility is a function of how we think about ourselves and others. Therefore, to grow in humility can mean that we need to change some thought patterns. The two major areas for growth or change are in how we think about ourselves and how we think about others. How we think about ourselves is a function of self-awareness and self-acceptance. Arrogance can often be a mask for an inability or unwillingness to accept and properly value ourselves. Doing some work in self-awareness enables us to accept and to be confident in who we are. Confidence, by the way, goes hand in hand with humility when it is based in self-awareness and acceptance. The other part of growth and change is how we think about others. This requires building a pattern of displaying respect and value for the people around us. This change might require rooting out any patterns of disrespect and replacing those patterns with gratitude and high regard for all of the people with whom we come in contact.
Humility is a character trait that is easily recognized, either implicitly or explicitly, by people. It is fundamental to building a strong relationship of trust and respect, and therefore, is a character trait that can make or break your leadership efforts.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.