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  • Writer's pictureAlison Finstad

Celebrating Humility

Definitions of Humility:

“freedom from pride or arrogance: the quality or state of being humble” (1)

“the quality of not being proud because you are aware of your bad qualities” (2)



Humility … one of the most prized, yet elusive, virtues.  As soon as we think we have it, we may not, because can a humble person call him or herself humble? It feels like a Catch-22.

 

Many leaders might strive to be bold, charismatic, visionary, and intelligent – all important qualities! Yet how many leaders strive to be humble, to give away the credit, to step out of the limelight, to climb down the ladder? I can think of only a few, and wish I could count myself among them. Being humble is so counter-cultural.

 

Yet who doesn’t like a humble person, and who doesn’t want to be led by a humble leader?

 

Reputable companies such as Forbes, the Harvard Business Review, and the New York Times have no shortage of articles on the importance of humble leadership, and make bold statements like:

 

“… without humility, you are unable to learn.” (3)

 

“Humility is one of four critical leadership factors for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included.” (4)

 

“Humility and servant leadership do not imply that leaders have low self-esteem, or take on an attitude of servility. Instead, servant leadership emphasizes that the responsibility of a leader is to increase the ownership, autonomy, and responsibility of followers — to encourage them to think for themselves and try out their own ideas.” (5)

 

“… humble leadership was the strongest predictor of both employee satisfaction and improved performance of both individuals and teams.” (6)

 

[A study by a professor at Pepperdine University showed that] “those who scored highly on humility — not that they’d boast about it — also scored lower on measures of political and ideological polarization, whether conservative or liberal … people who score high for humility are less aggressive and less judgmental toward members of other religious groups than are less-humble people, even and especially after being challenged about their own religious views.” (7)

 

I am more convinced than ever that humility, not pride, is an attribute worth celebrating and cultivating in ourselves as leaders. But how do we actually do it? Here are three simple ideas:

 

1.      Listen to Understand

In my early 20’s I became upset at how a colleague handled a situation and was about to let her know. An older and wiser colleague stopped me in my tracks and suggested that I “be an investigator” first by asking questions and seeking to understand before being understood. I took his advice, asked the colleague who upset me some questions, and learned that she had good reason to do what she did. I was relieved that I asked questions and listened first before embarrassing myself with an accusation. Every time I’ve repeated his advice to listen first, usually beginning with “help me understand …” I’m always glad that I did it. And if I forget and let my pride lead the way, the outcome is rarely good.

 

Asking our teams for input, allowing them to take risks and share new ideas, and genuinely seeking to understand before being understood are ways that we can cultivate this virtue in ourselves and those we lead.

 

2.      Serve Others

One of my favorite leaders who is twenty years my senior and has a wealth of institutional knowledge would regularly ask how he could help me, serve me, pray for me. Not once did he tell me how to do my job, and he always waited for me to ask him questions before he would offer input or advice. He saw his role as leader as one who set a high standard then removed obstacles from our path instead of micromanaging the team. He was a delightfully humble leader.

 

Looking for opportunities to get to know our teams better and serve them in ways that would be meaningful to them – whether bringing them their favorite coffee, asking about their family, removing barriers to their success, or letting them know that they are cared for not just for their work performance, but for who they are – are the kind footprints of a servant leader.

 

3.      Acknowledge Mistakes

There is an adage that says, “great leaders give the credit and take the blame.” Taking the blame for the team is painful for sure, but it helps the team to feel protected and free to take sensible risks. Accepting responsibility also demonstrates an appropriate level of vulnerability that helps us as leaders to be more approachable; sharing our own mistakes increases the level of transparency and trust on the team. Steering clear of debate while allowing honest discussion to take place increases the respect teams have for their leaders, ultimately increasing employee engagement and retention.

 

 

From one striving-for-humility-but-not-there-yet leader to another …

thank you for all you do and for who you are, making this world a better place.

 

 

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.

Proverbs 11:2

 

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Matthew 23:12


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(1) Merriam-Webster

(2) Cambridge Dictionary

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