Updated: Feb 7, 2022
Did you know being humble is often perceived as a weakness? Perhaps due in part to our individualistic nature or supreme confidence in our abilities, being humble is not generally included as a leadership requirement. Just think of all the leadership attributes that are much more prevalent and rewarded! We're encouraged to take responsibility for the great things we do. We are expected to show off our accomplishments and even brag!
Things like deflecting attention, asking for advice, and admitting fault can make us feel less confident and may make us look less competent. But is humility a bad thing? And if not, can humility be developed?
As a personality trait, humility is described as “an ability to accurately acknowledge one’s limitations and abilities” (Van Tongeren et al., 2019, p. 463), and “an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused” (p. 463). In turn, humble leaders willingly give away power bestowed on them, welcome feedback, and take responsibility for their actions. These behaviors universally empower direct reports to make decisions and contribute toward the organization's success. We shouldn't be surprised then that humble leaders tend to oversee employees who have greater job satisfaction, higher engagement, and overall performance. In fact, being humble is a core attribute of effective leaders! Humble leaders have more followers, are more trusted and respected, and their teams are more productive.
Despite these benefits, limited guidance has been offered regarding how to develop humble leaders; however, here are a few options which may help us think, feel, and act more humbly.
First--actively seek out opportunities to learn from others. Over the years, my wife and I have loved travelling to different places and learning from locals about their favorite things to do, dishes to eat, and, more broadly, their core beliefs about the world. These conversations are always insightful and help us develop a deeper appreciation for what it's like to live somewhere entirely different. We are continuously reminded that are core values and things we consider to be 'common sense' are heavily influenced by our environment. In other words, they are socially constructed based on societal norms.
Second--select a workplace problem and generate as many solutions to the problem as possible. Consider strengths and areas of concern for each solution before soliciting feedback from at least three others. Ask them which solution they think is best AND which is the worst. In addition, ask them to explain what they disagree with and have them describe alternative solutions. While others are sharing feedback, actively listen to what they are saying. Take notes and reflect on the strengths of their arguments (as opposed to focusing on any flaws). Doing so will not only help develop a better understanding of other perspectives, but also help leaders improve their situational awareness.
Third--find a trusted individual who can serve as your mentor. Characteristics of an effective mentor include someone who is a good listener, has extensive professional experience, and will challenge you to be a better you. Establish an ongoing relationship with your mentor by first outlining mutual expectations for the mentorship. From there, use the mentorship to have difficult conversations. We may want to focus on the positive things we have done, but admiring those behaviors or actions is far less likely to help us improve as humble leaders. Regardless of where we are in life, there are always challenges, important decisions, and concerns we're dealing with. A mentor can provide rationale for the experiences we have at home, at school, and at work. Their perspectives can be enlightening and challenge us to re-examine our own stance on issues we deal with on a daily basis.
Learning to be humble begins with actively devoting time and attention toward becoming a humble leader. As we behave as humble leaders, we learn that we can take pride in our work while at the same time deflecting attention toward those who helped us achieve our accomplishments. As we continue to think like a humble leader, we also learn that humility is a sign of strength and confidence. We no longer require attention and external recognition to justify or be proud of our success. And we learn that humble leaders are the type of people we all want to be around.
We're in this together.