What is the power of humility? Why is it important in leadership? And how do you develop the kind of humility that makes you a better leader?
These are tougher questions than you might imagine because humility, like authenticity, is a characteristic. You probably already know someone who talks about authenticity a lot but doesn’t seem authentic at all.
Humility is even harder. Well it was for me at least. First, the concept is pretty hard to get. We know that confidence is actually one of the most important qualities of a leader, and on the surface humility seems to be almost the opposite of confidence.
But, as it turns out, humility is what makes confidence authentic. Confidence without humility comes across as arrogance.
When I first learned this almost 20 years ago I was excited and I talked about humility a lot, including how humble I was. In fact, I would throw around a lot of evidence to prove how humble I was by pointing out some of my own mistakes to other people. I had a friend who looked at me one evening and said, “I don’t think you want to be humble; I think what you really want is to get an “A” in humility.”
The comment perplexed me at the time, but it struck enough of a chord that I thought about it very deeply for a really long time. I realized that what my friend was saying was true. I really did want to be “the best” at being humble…because I wanted to be “the best” at my job. I wanted to be good leader. And I had learned that being humble was part of being a good leader.
But wanting to be seen as humble and trying to behave in a way that looks humble to other people isn’t what makes a person humble. So, at the time that left me stuck.
Fast forward ten years to an event where I was being honored for a leadership position I had excelled in. One person asked me what my secret was. I tried to explain the feeling I had while working with the team. It was a feeling of being invisible myself and being completely immersed in what we were working towards as a team. The person I was talking to was surprised and assumed I was saying something negative. She quickly assured me that I hadn’t been invisible at all in my position; in fact, I had been one of the most visible leaders they had had in a long time. I gave up trying to explain the feeling, but again, I thought about it.
I believe that the feeling I had was an experience of true humility. The invisibility I mentioned didn’t feel negative at all. In fact, it felt wonderful, almost euphoric. It was the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself and serving it with all of your mind and your emotions, pouring your creativity and focus into it, and feeling pure joy from the synergy of being connected with others to make something amazing happen.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talked about this in his book and studies on “flow”. What happens when you are in flow, essentially, is that you lose your ego. You get so immersed and engaged in your work that the part of your mind which is usually occupied with self-monitoring disappears, and for a period of time you “lose” your sense of self.
When I think of humility I think of it as a detachment from what other people may be thinking about you that enables you to fully focus on whatever is needed to serve the purpose of the moment.
For example, it allows you to say everything that is important (“I made a mistake that could have affected our results, I stopped listening because I was distracted by a text, you may not have the right skill set to be on my team for this project”) because your filter that is concerned about you looking stupid or incompetent is gone.
Why are the best leaders the humble ones? Because they say what they are truly thinking in service of the purpose at hand, and people “get” that it’s not about them.
Their interactions feel more authentic and less like politics and positioning.
Think about the leaders that you’ve respected the most. Were they the ones who cared about how others saw them, or the ones immersed in something outside of themselves such as the vision, the results, or the team? It’s difficult to get immersed in something outside of yourself if you are trapped in the self-monitoring part of your brain.
If you decide that you want to develop more of your own humility it takes more than behaving differently. It takes an inner journey, and ironically starts with paying attention to the very things a humble person may no longer be concerned with. What do you want others to think of you? How horrible would it be for you if they didn’t? What do you worry about having to be or do in order to feel okay in the world? What beliefs drive these thinking processes?
It’s not quick work, but every time you get a new insight, you have the power to safely shed just a little bit more of that protective ego and engage that much more creatively in serving the purpose that is important to you. I’m still on my own journey, but what I’ve experienced is that every milestone has made not just my work, but my entire life, significantly better. I believe this is the most important self-development work a leader can do, because no matter how hard you try to get an “A” in humility, or authenticity or confidence, people will respond to the real you. And when the real you grows, so does everyone around you.
This is the work we do at Nahid Coaching & Mentoring. If you’re intrigued, feel free to check out our Programs page for a description of how I run our learning community, or schedule a phone consultation with me using the contact form. I would love to get to know you, hear your story, and share more about how we work with our clients to help them make real changes that last.