In Praise of Humility

The attribute of humility is not often celebrated in performance reviews, nor is it a part of leadership development programs. Maybe it should be.

We live in an era of self-celebration, and bravado announces our confidence. At work, ambitious people enthusiastically self-promote in order to be singled out for promotion and stretch positions.

Yet as professor of business psychology Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says, “Bluster and the alpha instinct often get mistaken for ability and effectiveness.” We have a large volume of evidence about the perils of hubris and, consequently, leadership failures.

Hubris is extreme pride and arrogance, and it occurs when those in power lose their connection to reality and vastly overestimate their capabilities. Its opposite – humility – inspires loyalty and productive team work. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, talks about remarkable CEOs who sustain success through leading quietly, not charismatically, and calls them Level 5 leaders.

A classic example of a Level 5 leader is an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will.  According to Collins’ research study, executives who possess this seemingly paradoxical combination of traits are catalysts for the statistically rare event of transforming a good company into a great one.

What does a leader do who acts with personal humility and intense professional will?


  • Demonstrates a compelling modesty, shunning public adulation; never boastful.
  • Acts with quiet, calm determination; relies principally on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate.
  • Channels ambition into the company, not the self; sets up successors for even more greatness in the next generation.
  • Looks in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors, or bad luck.


  • Creates superb results, a clear catalyst in the transition from good to great.
  • Demonstrates an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult.
  • Sets the standard for building an enduring great company; will settle for nothing less.
  • Looks out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company—to other people, external factors, and good luck.

Humility has nothing to do with being meek, weak, or indecisive. It is not mere courtesy or an especially kind and friendly demeanor. Nor does it necessarily mean shunning publicity.

Effective leaders know how to express their authenticity and connect with others by showing their humanity. They aren’t afraid to appear humble. And, as the research shows, humility contributes to leading others from good to great.

There are a lot of ways to develop leadership talents, but very few programs address how to develop humility.  Humility isn’t something you’re born with, yet you can acquire it through practicing  the right behaviors.

If you feel you could benefit from developing humility, here are two suggestions :

  1. Ask for a 360 Review.
    Anonymous feedback from the people who surround you can be scary. But as Ann Landers wrote: “Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”

    Find out how your self-perception differs from others’. It’s the only way you can know how to make a growth and development plan. It’s also valuable practice in receiving feedback and learning to handle criticism.

  2. Get a Coach.
    You can’t know what you don’t know without someone to hold up the mirror. You have blind spots and weaknesses. The only real fault lies in not finding what they are and not learning how to manage them.

    Fast Company reports 43% of CEOs and 71% of senior executives say they’ve worked with a coach. And 92% of leaders being coached say they plan to use a coach again.

Here are some suggestions for developing humility from authors John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin in “Six Principles for Developing Humility as a Leader,” published in HarvardBusiness Review, September 2013:

  1. Know what you don’t know.
    Resist “master of the universe” impulses. You may yourself excel in an area, but as a leader you are, by definition, a generalist. Rely on those who have relevant qualifications and expertise. Know when to defer and delegate.
  2. Resist falling for your own publicity.
    We all do it: whether we’re writing a press release or a self-appraisal, we put the best spin on our success — and then conveniently forget that the reality wasn’t as flawless.
  3. Never underestimate the competition.
    You may be brilliant, ambitious, and audacious. But the world is filled with other hard-working, high-IQ, creative professionals.
  4. Embrace and promote a spirit of service.
    Employees quickly figure out which leaders are dedicated to helping them succeed and which are scrambling for personal success at their expense.
  5. Listen, even (no, especially) to the weird ideas.
    Only when you are not convinced that your idea is better than someone else’s do you really open your mind.  And there is ample evidence that you should: the most imaginative and valuable ideas tend to come from left field.
  6. Be passionately curious.
    Constantly welcome and seek out new knowledge, and insist on curiosity from those around you. Take it from Einstein. “I have no special talent,” he claimed. “I am only passionately curious.”

Whether you plan to climb the leadership ladder or not, your career success depends to a degree on your personal growth and development. Resolve to work on your own humility and you will begin to notice and appreciate its effect all around you. A willingness to speak of your failures and career challenges will convince others that your self-confidence and wisdom are tempered with humility.