Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.
Ezra Taft Benson
Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.
In this day and age of self-praise and self-reference – from constant TMZ updates to excessive end zone celebrations – humility is a rare commodity. On the one hand it is often ill-defined and misunderstood, and on the other hand, it seems oddly out of place in our culture. Yet, we all know how much more enjoyable it is to meet someone we respect and admire who is also approachable and down to earth. The purpose of this blog is to discuss humility, what it is and why it’s important for being an Actualized Leader, and to explore ways to develop this important, if not always visible, attribute.
Humility refers to being humble. Humility has been defined as “… having a clear perspective and respect for one’s place in context.” In this regard, it exists as Objectivity’s first cousin; that is, having a realistic appraisal of one’s actual ability or contribution. And, as stated earlier, linking humility to being humble presents a person who is approachable, pleasant, and grounded. However, the tricky part of understanding and appreciating humility comes from the more traditional definition of humility. Traditional conceptualizations of humility include having a “low” or “insignificant” view of oneself, which is derived from the Latin humilitatem which literally translates to “insignificance.” In this traditional sense, false humility can be just as negative and destructive as humility’s dark counterpart: pride.
In attempting to define what humility is, and what it is not, it’s helpful to look at antonyms or opposites of humility, which include vanity, arrogance, envy, and as previously mentioned, pride. Benjamin Franklin struggled with this aspect of personality, referring to pride as a “passion” and warning us that even if we “…disguise it, struggle with it and beat it down … it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.”
So, how do the counterparts of humility show up? I quiz my leadership students each semester by asking them, “Who thinks they’re Self-Actualized?” A show of hands often paints a picture of pride, self-righteousness and delusion, but rarely one of Self-Actualization. Self-Actualization is a process and a journey – not a destination. It has been my experience that when individuals – whether business leaders or first-year MBA students – think they’ve arrived, they often find themselves standing at the wrong gate (at the wrong airport, perhaps even the wrong city). With that in mind, we must embrace the process of self-discovery and growth. Zen masters refer to an open, non-judgmental, and humble orientation to life as a “beginner’s mind” – an approach grounded in humility that makes no assumptions about others or their intentions.
In his classic 2001 book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins effectively demonstrates that Level 5 leaders who practice humility and modesty are much more effective than their charismatic, larger-than-life CEO counterparts. In my view, humility allows us to exclaim with excitement and passion (as opposed to shame and embarrassment) that We don’t know! and in doing so, can adopt a “beginner’s mind” to help quench our curiosity for learning and growth.
So, we have examined what humility is, what it is not, and why it’s important for being an Actualized Leader, but what can we do to help in our battles against the “passion of pride” so that we are open to learning, growth and improvement? Below are three recommended takeaways that I would encourage you to explore:
- Resist believing your own press release. As my friends and mentors Dom Monetta and Peter Browning often say, “Don’t believe your own press agent, or your worst critic, either” (Dom) and “You’re never as good (or as bad) as your numbers” (Peter). Celebrate your wins for sure, but resist drinking too deeply from the fountain of success. As Dame and Gedmin point out in their Harvard Business Review article “Six Principles for Developing Humility as a Leader,” a small sip can be energizing, but too large a gulp will impair your judgment.
- Take an active interest in others. It’s been my personal experience that most people love talking about their favorite subject: themselves. That’s mostly true for all of us. So take the time to talk with those around you about their thoughts, ideas, hopes, and dreams. Engage and actively listen to what they think, feel, and say. When you put your own ego aside and deeply listen to others, you will be much better able to learn something new. As the saying goes, God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.
- Stay hungry. Success can either sharpen your desire for ongoing improvement (e.g., Michael Jordan during his professional career, etc.) or it can lull you into complacency. We often forget that the world is filled with other energetic people who are hungry, smart, and ambitious, and who very much want what you or I may have. Practicing humility will help ensure that you stay hungry, focused, and committed to improving your “game.”
Your assignment – practice humility every day by saying (and meaning) “I don’t know,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry” to others when appropriate. Humility will not only help you get closer to your Actualized Leadership destination, it will also help ensure that don’t self-destruct with explosions (or implosions) of arrogance, pride, and vanity. So, enjoy your victories but avoid excessive celebration. When you act like your job is to score the touchdown, and that you plan to be back in the end zone again soon, you might just realize that the real Superman prefers to keep his identity secret for a reason.