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Photo by Michiel Jelijs. Available at Flickr.com.

In a day when arrogance is elevated to a virtue and celebrity image is more important than practical skill, we may question the value of the ancient virtue of humility. Don’t underestimate it! According to recent research on Leader Humility, humility brings lasting benefits to organizations.1 But what is it? Let’s look at some of the characteristics of the one virtue of which it is said, “Once you think you have it, you no longer do.”

  1. Humble leaders know their limits. Not only do they know their limits, but they are not afraid to let others know. They know, for example when they have reached the limits of their patience. Having a keen self-awareness, they know when to step away when they feel themselves losing emotional control.
  2. Humble leaders take responsibility for outcomes. When mistakes are made, they not only take responsibility for their own contribution to the mistakes, but also for the failures of the entire team. They do not blame their subordinates–even if it is really their fault.
  3. Humble leaders know how to ask for help. Sometimes, humility goes even beyond admitting weakness and requests the help of followers to compensate for that weakness. In other words, humble leaders are not afraid to ask for help.
  4. Humble leaders are perceived as strong leaders. Some may think that, in today’s dog-eat-dog corporate environment, humility would make the leader appear weak. Research shows the opposite: followers often perceive the leader’s admission of their own limitations as a mark of true strength.
  5. Humble leaders know their strengths. Contrary to what some may think humble leaders are not unaware of their abilities. It is, in fact, the clear understanding of their own strengths that enables them to also see their weaknesses.
  6. Humble leadership builds trust. The example of the humble leader enables followers build a mental model of leadership as investing in others rather than building one’s own power base over others. This climate of mutual support creates an overall climate of trust.
  7. Humble leaders are open to new ideas. Their ideas and policies are more based on principles than on positions. Consequently they are open to new ways of doing things as long as these new ways honor the principles.
  8. Humble leaders are balanced. Humility is a stabilizing virtue; it enables leaders to balance their passion for ideas with the caution of self-awareness. Humility is a moderating force that protects the leader from excessive confidence.
  9. Humble leaders are team players. Robert Greenleaf defined humility as “ability to learn from and gratefully receive the gifts of the less powerful.” Such leaders understand leadership not as a one-person show, but as a community effort where each part makes a significant contribution to the whole.
  10. Humble leaders lead from their competence rather than their position. Rather than heroes or celebrities leading from above, humble leaders are brothers leading from among. For centuries, mankind has envisioned leadership as a gift flowing from above and that image is hard to shake. But gradually we are beginning to understand that great ideas can also emerge from below and, more importantly, success is a team effort.
  11. Humble leaders experience a higher degree of personal freedom. Humility enables the leader to dissent from the tug of popular opinion because the humble leader is free from the need to please people.
  12. Humble leaders are more integrated. As a foundational virtue, humility shapes and structures all other human capabilities, turning them into virtues rather than vices.

To lead humbly, means to lead from a level playing field, to be seen as a leader for one’s genuine qualities, rather than simply from fear or power. Rather than attempting to present an image of the hero leader, humble leaders model how to grow personally and professionally. In this way, their leadership inspires others to grow and develop.

I am intrigued by the possible connection between humble leadership and becoming a learning organization. The two concepts seem to be compatible. What do you think? Are you a humble leader? What has been your experience with humble leaders? What are some ways we can work on becoming more humble in our leadership behavior?

Notes

1Bradley P. Ownes & David R. Hekman. “Modeling How to Grow: An Inductive Examination of Humble Leader Behaviors, Contingencies, and Outcomes.” iBooks. Available at leeds.colorado.edu