Critical Leadership Traits – Humility

The definition of humility is to have a modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance or rank. In today’s “all about me” world it has become harder to find people who project true humility. In working with hundreds of leaders over the past three decades, I have learned that humility is found in truly great leaders. In many cases, it separates the good leaders from the great leaders.

Humility enables leaders to recognize real limits and accept others as their equal or even their superior in any given situation. Humility is needed to lead because it helps us to trust and have faith in others to do the work they have the potential to do. Without humility, leaders become skeptical of others, even control freaks, and convinced that they know better than everybody else.

Consider these 4 points to increase your understanding of real humility while avoiding false humility:

1. Humility is reality-centered

Humility is really quite simple. It is the recognition and acceptance of reality through open-mindedness to truth. Humble leaders grasp their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s similar to looking in the mirror. We sometimes don’t want to see the real picture and maybe prefer to remember what our twenty something self looked like back in the day. Remember that the sign of a truly great leader is they surround themselves with leaders who are smarter than they are and think differently than they do.

2. Two primary opposites of humility

Sometimes we are able to truly understand things by defining their opposites. Pride is an opposite of humility and is defined as an excessive desire for or estimation of one’s own excellence. Humility is opposed by two forms of pride on a spectrum of self-centeredness ranging from extreme overconfidence to exaggerated lowliness (false humility). As we get ready for another NFL season, we have a perfect example of the two opposites of humility. Many of the greatest players such as Roger Staubach, or Mike Singletary were not focused on self, they were focused on team. In comparison, you see many of today’s players who only want to focus on how great they are and how much the team needs them.

There is a story told of a young Abraham Lincoln that draws a sharp contrast with the prideful pictures above. According to the story, a young man, consumed in his own thoughts while leaving a hospital, barreled right over Abe Lincoln. Rather than apologize, the young man yelled, “watch where you’re going, you long-legged fool!” Lincoln’s sense of humility was revealed in his response, “What is troubling you, young man?” Lincoln had been wronged, but his humility enabled him to accept the bigger reality that the young man’s troubles likely far outweighed Lincoln’s minor bruises. The dignified response betrayed neither pride nor modesty.

3. “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”

The above quote from C. S. Lewis builds upon the Jewish moral tradition, which views deliberate attempts to achieve humility as self-defeating. Dwelling too much on one’s own self is directly at odds with the goal of humility, which is a focus on reality and what is truly good rather than the self. We all know people in our lives that control the conversation by only talking about themselves and they never ask how the other person is doing. The conversation usually ends by them saying “great talking to you” without them learning anything about what you are doing.

4. Humility is open-mindedness to the truth

Humility cannot occur without accepting deserved criticism and compliments. A fundamental indicator of a lack of humility is an inability, even anger, toward receiving criticism from others. I had a CEO many years ago who gave me constructive feedback. He told me this was the gift of feedback – I could throw it away, regift it, or take it in the spirit it was given to make me better. I’ll always remember that quote and I occasionally use it now. That CEO was a great person to work for. Feedback in most cases is given for the purpose of making you better. None of us are perfect, we all have blind spots – just like when we are driving.

I love watching great leaders in a meeting. Many times it’s very hard to determine who the leader is because they listen and ask great questions. In many cases, they don’t weigh in with their opinion until they need to or if there is no decision or consensus between the other leaders in the room. Remember that humility is a great leadership trait and also a mindset that is important when leading others.

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