Based on the extensive research published in the last 10 years, humility in leadership can be thought of in terms of three main building blocks:
- how you understand yourself (self-awareness, self-reflection and vulnerability);
- how you understand your relationships with others (open-mindedness, appreciation of others, and generosity); and
- how you understand your place in the universe (transcendence).
The first block: How you understand yourself
Humility is first and foremost about having an accurate view of yourself. Although some people—and even some dictionaries— view humility as synonymous with low self-esteem, psychology and leadership experts describe humility as understanding one’s talents and accomplishments while accepting one’s imperfections and shortcomings. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, clarifies that “to be humble is not to have a low opinion of oneself, it is to have an accurate opinion of oneself.”
When you have a talent or special skill and you don’t acknowledge it, you are not displaying humility. Rather, you are engaging in self-disparagement and possibly ingratitude. As a humble, smart leader, you should recognize that you are smart but you should also know that you are not smarter than everyone else—or smarter than the collective intelligence of the group that you lead. You can appreciate that you have expertise in strategy, for example, but you should also acknowledge that you don’t know everything about the subject and that you still have a lot to learn.
Humility is not about deflating or inflating your abilities or status; it is about understanding them just the way they are. You can strive to know your strengths and weaknesses based on disciplined self-reflection. This is especially challenging when you get promoted to higher positions and are granted great power and authority. Unless you practice humility intentionally, your views of yourself can easily get skewed, especially if you believe everything you are told by some of the sycophants who may have surrounded you.
The second block: How you understand your relationships with others
Once you are aware of your personal limitations, you can be open to new ideas and ways of thinking, and you become willing to learn from others. The clever organizational theorist Karl Weick perfectly captured this when he encouraged leaders to admit the shortcomings of their knowledge: “When a leader is able to humbly admit ‘I don’t know,’ that admission forces the leader to drop pretense, drop omniscience, drop expert authority, drop a macho posture, and drop monologues . . . listening and exploring is the consequence.”
You then ask for advice, you seek and listen to honest feedback from others, and you even solicit contradictory views. Brad Owens, professor of business ethics at Brigham Young
University and one of the leading researchers in the field of humble leadership, describes this quality as “teachability”: the willingness to admit ignorance, appreciate others’ contributions, and learn from them. Teachability entails having an open mind, a curiosity towards others, and an interest in understanding them and their views.
The third block: How you understand your place in the universe
One of the most amazing YouTube videos that I have ever watched is “How the Universe Is Way Bigger Than You Think.” Last time I checked, it had more than 23 million views. In my
opinion, it should be required viewing for any leader who has an inflated ego. The video shows, with great mathematical accuracy, how small we are as individual human beings in relation to our earth, universe, and the greater cosmos.
As a humble leader, you aren’t just aware that you need others’ help and ideas; you are also aware of your insignificance in the universe. You may have worked incessantly with your team to develop a new product line that will significantly increase revenue for your organization for years to come, but in the grand scheme of things, your impact is insignificant, and you need to be aware of that.
This dimension of leadership is often referred to as “metaphysical humility,” an attitude that enables you to acknowledge your nothingness in the world. This nothingness can be appreciated in terms of how powerful God is or how large the universe is, but it can also be realized by simply observing nature or contemplating history. Arrogance can sometimes make you feel like you are the center of the universe, but when you realize how connected everything is and how small and insignificant you are, you can truly develop your humility—and, in so doing, perhaps paradoxically, you become a fuller person: “When we lack connection to anything larger or bigger than us, it is like a piece of our soul is gone,” as the young philosopher Ryan Holiday wrote in his remarkable book Ego Is the Enemy.
Please note, though, that transcendence is not a call for surrender, laziness, or relinquishing action. It is about understanding your small role but still doing it to the best of your abilities in a humble and ambitious way. You may not matter much in the grand scheme of things, but you have an important role to play in your small corner of the universe.