"​I am the most humble leader you would ever meet!"​

By Sofia Hjort Lönegård

When we think great leaders, we think of characteristics, including confidence, arrogance, visionary, and charisma. Humility, however, is often one which is overlooked.

A CEO once exclaimed to me, "I am the most humble leader you would ever meet!" with so much confidence in his statement that I almost believed him. We have all seen this type of leader, particularly high profile leaders in recent years who have demonstrated so much self-confidence in their own ability to believe they are humble while contradicting this with a 'god-like complex'. Humility can be defined as genuine gratitude and a lack of arrogance with a modest view of oneself. Expressing oneself as being the most humble, is in effect, the opposite of being humble.

Interestingly, Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, in his book Humble Enquiry outlined three types of humility:

  • The humility we feel around elders and dignitaries
  • The humility we feel in the presence of those who awe us with their achievements
  • Here-and-now humility

Schein explains that the here-and-now type of humility is the least practised in business and the one successful leaders should demonstrate.

So why is humility necessary?

In Jim Collin's book 'Good to Great', Jim identified two common traits in leaders of companies that had transitioned successfully from average to superior, humility and a will to advance the organisation's cause.

Many leading organisations are recognising the importance of humility as a fundamental emotional trait in their hiring decisions and just as importantly, in progressing their internal talent.

There are hundreds of examples globally of humble leaders including Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte who was pictured mopping a coffee spilt by him in one of the offices, through to co-founder of HP, David Packard who was quoted as saying "You shouldn't gloat about anything you've done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do."

Research demonstrates that humble leaders inspire close teamwork, rapid learning and development, decreased turnover and high-performance teams which are the cornerstone of successful organisations. 

People are the critical asset to any organisation and engagement of the vital asset is the main task of any leader. The more humility demonstrated by the leader, the higher the chance of an engaged team. A more engaged team results in higher performance for the company overall.

In selecting leaders, although many value humility, it is often overlooked. Many mistake confidence for competence, arrogance for strength or being blinded by charisma  

Are you acting with humility?

Servant-leaders is a term coined to describe leaders who "view their key role as serving employees as they explore and grow, providing tangible and emotional support as they do so". Some famous servant leaders include Martin Luther King Jnr, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

Four steps for developing into a better servant leader were outlined by Jeffrey Hayzlett, including encouraging diversity of thought, creating a value of trust, having an unselfish mindset and fostering leadership in others. Truly humble leaders understand that they are not the smartest person in the room and choose to lead through collaboration, respecting differences and encouraging opinions to achieve the shared outcomes.

Schein advised that to achieve humility is to 'ask more and ask openly', encouraging leaders to focus on the goal, respect the relationship, trust the team and 'ask for their help'. Additionally, he advised to ask and not assume which involves maximising listening and asking questions in the least biased and threatening way.

How can you measure humility?

Sincerity, openness, modesty and honesty are all critical measurable traits for assessing humility and demonstrable modesty in personal strengths and achievements and hesitation in taking personal credit for success—understanding motivations and drivers further than material gain, or personal status are fundamental.

Implementing personality assessments and more comprehensive interviewing techniques can target the traits necessary for selection or promotion decisions.

We can all take a leaf from the guide book in becoming more humble and no one more so than those in a leadership position to grow and demonstrate to our future leaders how to increase performance through people. In the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi. "Be the change you want to see in the world.


About the Author

Luke Robbins is one of the top global Board & Executive Search Consultants, with many years' expertise in interviewing and assessing successful executive leaders worldwide. He believes in challenging and quantifying what good leadership looks like to create business value for stakeholders through both internal and external talent. For further information please contact him luke.robbins@mercuriurval.com