Every once in awhile, you may say something that unintentionally sounds like a brag. Without meaning to, you can offend colleagues with a perceived lack of humility, or by giving yourself more credit than you might deserve. Or perhaps you have a teammate who displays this behavior—no one can top their intellect and judgement.
A lack of humility can be a true buzzkill for any team. But with knowledge about what behaviors demonstrate humility—and clear guidance on when to step up—you can transform how you are perceived. Humble leaders can be powerful leaders indeed.
What exactly is humility?
Take a moment to try to define humility. Your first attempt might describe someone who encourages others to step into the spotlight to accept credit for a big accomplishment. Or perhaps someone who recognizes the limits of their own expertise and so invites others into the conversation willingly.
But there’s more. The broader definition of this term is “a self-view that something greater than the self exists”; that is, an understanding of the individual’s place in the broad and complex ecosystem in which they live and work.
Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, has further defined this kind of humility as “here-and-now” humility. This kind of humility is present when one person is dependent on another to accomplish a goal. What these two definitions have in common is the concept of interdependence—when you display humility, you are showing that you can’t do it all alone.
Actions of humble leaders
Recent studies have shed light on the specific actions exhibited by humble leaders. Neilsen and Marrone’s work in the International Journal of Management Reviews found that people described as “humble” share the ability to:
- Acknowledge their limitations and strengths;
- Appreciate others' strengths and contributions without letting their ego get in the way;
- Maintain an open mind and a desire to continuously learn from others;
- Seek diverse feedback often;
- Apologize when they are in the wrong; and
- Avoid being defensive, aggressive, or domineering.
Note that humble individuals are not self-deprecating, as common knowledge might lead us to believe. Instead of silently shying away from responsibility or leadership, they recognize their strengths and assume their rightful role with others in a broader community, sometimes leading and sometimes following.
The positive impact of a humble leader
Knowing how to show humility is one thing, but it’s another to know when to focus on humility to advance your organization’s goals. Humble leaders, as noted again by Neilsen and Marrone, are especially effective in:
- Cultivating strong social relationships, helpfulness, forgiveness, and social justice amongst their team members;
- Creating teams with more satisfied employees who stay longer at the organization;
- Leading well in unpredictable situations by using a trial-and-error approach; and
- Minimizing negative feelings and intentions toward “out-group” members, resulting in a more inclusive work environment.
So if you’re coming up on a rough patch or a big transition that will require teamwork, flexibility, and collaborative decision making, then put a humble leader in charge.
Are you acting with humility?
You might be curious to know if your actions are perceived as humble by those around you. While there are limitations to self-reported measures of humility, they can give you a clue into how you’re doing in this area.
For a broad view of your personality traits check out Lee and Ashton’s HEXACO Personality Inventory-Revised, a 15-minute questionnaire that illuminates where you fall in the range of Honesty-Humility (the “H” factor), in addition to five other personality traits. Or you can check out these 13 Tough Questions from Pepperdine University researcher and professor Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso.
Flex your humility muscles
Even if your self-reported assessments are showing lower humility than you’d like, there’s good news: humility is a muscle you can flex. Practicing it regularly makes you better at using it in critical or stressful moments. Here are some tips for putting humility skills into practice:
- Try asking for and graciously accepting feedback;
- Take an honest look at how you’re contributing to an inclusive organization through decision making norms and leadership structures;
- Look for opportunities to ask others for their insights and integrate them into your workflow.
If it feels difficult to be humble, remember that when you take on the mindset and behaviors of humility, you also build your confidence, resilience, and ability to adjust in the midst of turmoil. Most importantly, know that humility is something that you can develop over time. As you step into the role of a humble leader, know that you, your organization, and its mission are all the better for it.
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Liz S. Peintner is a leadership coach and consultant based in Denver, Colorado who has spent her entire career in the social impact field. She helps people to better understand what drives them so they can choose careers they love and ultimately make positive social impact in ways that speak to their talents and passions.