Humility and Leadership

MD Tabrej, Director,
Dept. of Business Administration, St. Joseph’s College, Jakhama.  

“Humility is nothing but truth and pride is nothing but lying” - St. Vincent de Paul  

In a global market place where problems are increasingly complex, no one person will ever have all the answers. That is why Google’s SVP of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, says humility is one of the traits he is looking in Leaders. Without humility you are unable to learn.  

Humility might not be the first quality that comes to mind when you think of leadership skills, but studies are showing that it is one of the most vital characteristics of successful leaders. Leaders who practice humility engender trust, empower their subordinates, looks at failures as challenges and develop a team spirit- all of which leads to happier employees and more profits for the company.  

Humility may be too easily dismissed as a leadership quality because people associates it with weakness, but according to several leadership experts, humility simply means understanding your strengths and weakness and the strengths and weaknesses of others.  

Angela Sebaly, co-founder and CEO of Personify Leadership and author of “The Courageous Leader” (Wiley, 2017), adds that humble leaders are focused on the big picture of mission and team rather than themselves. Humility is about minimizing the self and maximising the bigger purpose you represent.  

When you think about humility in that way, it becomes a vital competency in leadership because it takes the focus from I to We. Leaders with humility engages us and give us a sense of identity and purpose. The Catalyst study supports Sebaly’s assertion. It found that regardless of business or country, humble leaders make their employees feel included, which in turn makes them more comfortable in proposing innovations and helping others.  

True humility also requires courage and trust that stem from the leaders’ confidence in themselves and their abilities. There is a balance a leader has to strike between confidence and humility. Confidence is not about arrogance but about the ability to project presence in the room, coordinate other people’s action and help others take action.  

Susan Bate founder of Leadership Development Organisation conducted a four year study of leading executives around the world to find the most important leadership qualities, which included humility and confidence.  

Developing humility while maintaining confidence

The key to developing humility is as difficult to enact as it is simple to explain. Sebaly says the first step is accept and love your strengths and talents. The second step is being ready to learn through painful, humbling experiences. Everyone has a time in his or her carrier when they will mess up or fall short of expectations and more the leader pushes himself or herself to grow, the more such experiences they will face.  

Bates said that to develop your sense of humility, you must learn your strengths and weakness. Solicit honest feedback from employees and peers, especially on how well you listen to ideas. (Do I allow space for people to express ideas before stating my own?” Do I come across as needing to have all the answers?)  

She also suggested that when running a meeting; wait before offering answers to let others weigh in. This letting go can be hard, especially for experienced leaders who may have tackled similar problems earlier in their career. However empowering the team members to handle the issue not only gives them a chance to grow, but frees you up to handle higher level issues.  

Finally, Bates suggested acknowledging to yourself that you don’t have all the answers. That simple act can free you to be open to the suggestions of others.  

Demonstrating humility

Demonstrating humility means speaking to the higher purpose of accountability to the business or community. As such it does not rob you of power; but enhances your authority as leader. Leaders that demonstrate humility hold people accountable, have tough conversation and make difficult choices. They role-model seeking the bigger purposes above the self seeking approach. Those are the kind of leaders that people will jump off a clip for.  

“Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.” - Ezra Taft Benson.