Blog – Humility in Leadership

Most people would agree that integrity is at the core of every good leader, but what about humility? What springs to mind when you hear the word? Respect? Weakness? Power?

Think about those people in your life who you have found most influential and inspiring, were they marked with humility?

Humility on first thought may be seen as an inhibitor to greatness, achievement and influence, surely in today’s world we need to promote ourselves, build our ego and blaze the trail with blinding confidence in order to get ahead. On the other hand, can leaders have great influence through humility?

The idea of humility in leadership is not a new one but is worth consideration. It has been explored in Jim Collins’ book ‘Good to Great’, among others, where the ‘great’ companies were all identified as possessing leadership characterised by two things – steely determination and an attitude of humility.

So what is humility? We could be forgiven for thinking it carries the same meaning or intention as humiliation, being derived from the same Latin word – humilitas – and as such applying it to a context of weakness and shame. It is in fact not about lacking confidence, curbing your strengths, letting others walk all over you, or suppressing your opinions. Humility is about lowliness.

Lowliness? How does a leader lead with power and respect by being lowly? To be put low is to be conquered or shamed, but to lower oneself is in fact about redirection of power. This concept presupposes that the individual has some height to lower themselves from; they have a choice about how to use their authority, status, wealth, strength or knowledge. To choose to redirect your power for the sake of others – this is to be humble.

Author and historian, John Dickson, puts it like this, “Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.”

Think of yourself planning your next role. If someone described your potential new leader to you in this way, what would you feel? Intrigue, a level of respect even before knowing them personally, and a desire to work under their leadership I’m sure.

Let’s not confuse humility with modesty. Where modesty calls us to refrain from bragging and limit our publicising of achievements and abilities, humility is less about ourselves and more about others. It is about making choices, in our case as a leader, that consider the needs of those around us, that show a genuine interest in knowing and connecting with others, that show integrity and transparency in business and relationships, that direct power for the service of others.

While this sounds appealing, you may be thinking ‘yeah but we do have jobs to be done and businesses to run’. Quite right, and a workplace culture that is characterised by leaders who choose to be humble rather than power-driven will have a profound impact on the organisation. Tangible measures such as employee satisfaction and motivation, commitment and integrity, turnover, integration and coordination, customer service levels, quality of output, efficiency and adaptability will improve.

We’d love to hear your personal experiences of humility in leadership.


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