Great leadership is not always about being “right.” In fact, it rarely is. The leader’s job is to bring out the best in employees and to engage them in working together to do what’s best for the company. This cannot happen when a leader is too attached to their own ideas or convinced that they are the smartest person in the room. That’s why humility is one of the most important traits a leader can have.
Leading with humility is about taking oneself out of the center of the equation, about keeping the spotlight on others. It’s about quieting the ego so we’re open to learning and we’re focused on continuous improvement and growth.
Humility isn’t about being meek or submissive or thinking you aren’t good enough. It is about seeing oneself as one truly is. We know our strengths and our weaknesses. When we’re good at something and we receive a compliment, we don’t deny it. Rather we’re grateful that we’re in a position to help others develop that strength.
Humble leaders don’t assume they have all the answers. They know that an inflated ego can cause them to make bad decisions and lead the team down the wrong path. Also, it can alienate employees rather than engaging them, create dependency rather than ownership, and promote individualism rather than teamwork. Finally, an inflated ego can hinder learning, a crucial survival skill in business that enables organizations to innovate and problem-solve in step with the ever-changing global economy. It’s the leader’s job to model a love of learning for everyone in the organization—and humility is at the heart of that.
So, what does humility look like in action?
For starters, humble leaders are those who direct their focus outward. Intentionally focusing on others allows us to notice things we might not have seen otherwise. We pick up on body language and subtext, helping us build stronger relationships. Leading with humility also means we don’t mind seeking the input of others before making decisions. It means we never push our self-interest over that of the group. Finally, it means we don’t mind asking for help. And because humble leaders are well-liked and appreciated, we will receive it.
When we get intentional and proactive about leading with humility we will naturally shift to a healthier state of mind. The ego will assert itself less and less. Here are a few tips:
First, look for red flags that YOU might have a humility problem. The first step to getting better is always being aware that one has a problem. Hold up the mirror and ask yourself:
- Are you constantly reminding the people around you of how great or talented you are? Your ability should be evident in the work that you do. People will notice, and your credibility will come about organically.
- Are you self-righteous? Do you find yourself judging others (often openly) and talking about how you would never do the things they do?
- Do you take credit for things that were actually a team effort?
- Do you feel that menial tasks are beneath you?
- What are your motives? Do you go above and beyond because you value the success of the organization or do you do it to gain affirmation?
These questions can help you become aware of any red flags that may signal a lack of humility. Hopefully, very few of them apply to you, but most of us have humility slip-ups from time to time. The key is to be aware of it and rein in the ego when it starts getting out of control.
Always model what you want to see others do. Never ask your team to do anything you aren’t willing to do, or expect them to keep standards that you yourself aren’t able or willing to keep. Humility means knowing everyone stands on level ground. Leaders don’t try to present themselves as “special” or “different.”
Develop and promote others on the team. If you find yourself keeping things for yourself to do to show value, you are likely not coming from a place of humility. A humble leader will eventually render themselves obsolete in their current role, and then move up! Transfer ownership, raise your team up.
Give others credit. Push compliments down to the team. Actively look for places where you can give someone else the win—even better if it’s a junior person and you can use the opportunity as a learning experience. This means teeing them up nicely to be able to deliver something, then recognizing them for doing a good job.
Be accessible. Don’t lock yourself in your office. Leading with humility means getting down in the nitty-gritty with the team. Work with them, spend time with them, try hard not to be aloof or unapproachable. Make it clear that you have time for them and value interacting with them.
Know when it’s appropriate to micromanage. On one hand, humility means letting go of doing things “our way.” If someone finds a new or better way of doing things, rejoice! We’ve done our job and helped them grow. On the other, we need to know when to micromanage. If we take a totally hands-off approach, we may set an employee up to fail. Then, we get to swoop in and be the hero. This is self-serving and the opposite of humility.
Strive to be coachable. Seek to be a learner above all else. Be curious, ask if you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to admit if you don’t understand or don’t know what to do. Even the best leaders have strengths and weaknesses, and they never forget this. Ask questions as much as you can. Make a point to learn something from everyone on the team. This helps you keep your focus on them (and off yourself), and helps you recognize some of their abilities you might not have otherwise noticed.
Seek input and feedback regularly, and make sure people feel “safe” enough to tell you the truth. Whether you’re getting the team’s perspective on a decision you’re trying to make, or asking how things are going with their jobs (and your leadership) in general, it’s important to foster a culture of psychological safety. Leading with humility means always seeking out the truth, especially if it’s something you might not really want to hear.
Don’t focus on who the other person is or where they fall in the hierarchy. Focus on what they’re saying and whether it is true. A humble leader can take feedback from every level of the organization. If you find yourself saying “they’re not the boss of me” (or something along those lines), you might be coming from a place of pride rather than humility.
Speak the truth for the right reasons. Be authentic. Don’t sugarcoat, or package things in a way to try to make yourself look better. When you have to break hard news to someone, do it from the right place. Don’t make them feel or look bad if you don’t have to. Don’t make a huge production out of calling someone out, or use it as an opportunity to signal your own virtues.
Listen to understand, rather than respond. Communication should always be a two-way street. In a conversation, really try to empathize and understand what the other person is saying. This will help you get a better picture of what their needs or concerns really are. You should always be thinking, “How can I help this person?” or “How can I make things better?”
Admit mistakes. Don’t be blinded by pride or try to portray yourself as perfect. People appreciate vulnerability in leaders. Apologize sincerely when you need to. Remember the three magic words to reset any relationship: I was wrong.
Be open and transparent. Share information when you can. Don’t keep secrets, or withhold information just because it came to you first. This can make you feel more powerful, but it only damages the group. Sometimes you might have to keep information under wraps for a specific reason, but have good judgment as to when that really matters versus is just driven by ego.
Look for ways to make others feel important. A wise man once said: “When I talk to a boss, I get the feeling that they are important. When I talk to a leader, I get the feeling that I am important.” When someone does something well or makes a critical contribution to a project, say so (if you can do so publicly, so much the better). This shouldn’t be hard to find: Everyone has gifts they bring to the table and the humble leader strives to be always on the lookout for them.
Don’t talk about where you are, talk about who helped you get there. (Know your own privilege.) Be appreciative of the opportunities and “breaks” you got along the way. There is no such thing as a leader who got to the top on their own. Even when you talk about your own success, make the focus on who helped get you there, not how great you are.
Don’t put yourself down or deny compliments. Part of humility is knowing that you’re good enough and basing your self-worth on your own assessment of your performance. Be aware of “false” humility, which is putting yourself down so that others rush in to affirm how great you are. Also, when someone pays you a compliment, don’t deny it. If someone says, “You’re a really great speaker” don’t say, “Oh, it’s nothing.” This may make the person feel bad because they don’t have that skill. Then they will be less inclined to ask you for help, which means you lose a chance to serve them. It’s better to simply say “Thank you. I work very hard at it.”
Likewise, don’t be a martyr or seek pity from others. The “poor little old me” mindset is the opposite of humility. If you want people to feel bad for you, you are still sucking up all the attention and focusing it on yourself.
Say thank you at every opportunity. Recognize team members who contributed to the success. This is a good exercise in focusing on others, not yourself. Seek to always lead (and live) from a place of gratitude. In a way, gratitude is the ultimate marker of humility. I’ve heard it said that EGO stands for “Edging God Out.” Being grateful is a way of acknowledging that our gifts come from a higher power—and even if one isn’t religious in the traditional sense, they’ll benefit from acknowledging that they aren’t the source of all good things.
Leading with humility is not easy. It actually requires more self-assuredness and confidence than leading with arrogance and ego. We owe it to ourselves and others to do the work to develop this inner strength. When we do, we won’t need the external reinforcement that leads us to put on a show and seek accolades. We’ll be the kind of leader that others trust and follow.