Humility in Leadership

How very often we view leaders as being inculpable and meritorious; whether we are one or following one.  The light of leadership seems to gleam with characteristics that almost point to perfection, and in this age we are expected to have them all. Intelligence, confidence, charisma,  determination, sociability, and integrity are all suggested characteristics that a leader must have to be an effective leader. (Northouse, Ch 2) When a leader has these characteristics we feel inspired, we sense the vision, and we follow them. We look to our leaders as guides. The moment must come, though, when every leader fails. They show a characteristic or make a decision that doesn’t match their vision, and they may even become a hypocrite. This moment comes because, like the rest of us, leaders are not perfect; a result more commonly referred to as making a mistake. A leader feels shamed, and a follower feels mislead. These two feelings are a result from pride in leadership, a view that suggests a leader is always above it’s followers and is expected to remain so by said followers. If it’s common knowledge that people make mistakes, we should not be so detrimentally effected by the impropriety of both leader and follower. Instead I ask we seek the absence of pride, which is humility. Humility has the opportunity to transform both leader and follower into a community by practicing simple steps that prove a leader doesn’t have to be prominent to it’s followers. As Charles de Motesquieu once said, “to become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” (1)

Humility is the act of being humble, a word that holds a lot of clout in my mind. Most people my age think of the memorable words Charlotte weaves into the web for Wilbur when trying to save his life. She spells out “RADIANT”, “TERRIFIC”, and finally the word “HUMBLE” which ends up saving his life. To be humble is a trait that is acquired with wisdom and patience. To act with humility it requires someone to be able to say, not me first, but you. A humble person respects others, is submissive, demure, recognizes weakness, finds the appropriate times to ask for help and the appropriate times to receive help. Through humility we can see the worth of everyone because we do not place ourselves in a category above them, but with them. By being humble, we become real people which authenticates humanity.

As a leader, this humility is important to express because, not only are you giving credit to your followers, but you can see that without your followers you are not leading anyone. Isaac Newton once said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” (1) Once we achieve the perspective that our followers are just as vital to leadership as the leader is, than the followers receive a sense of importance and will be more eager to submit to the cause. Humility as a leader means being able to say, I haven’t the best idea and I can accept the ideas of my followers.

As a leader I can gallivant through life with an opinion I believe in, I can have pride in my opinion that it may be the best, and trek onward with it. I can consider myself a leader and maybe even have some followers. When my followers try to help, because of my pride, I shut them down and keep going. I am unwilling to accept my followers have a better idea than me, because that makes me weak. Maybe they will keep following, but how often in your life have your ideas been discarded and you’ve still felt inspired after that? I reckon, not so much. So I lose my followers because they feel dispensable.

As a leader, practicing humility from the beginning allows your followers to recognize that when you make mistakes it is not because you are not qualified to be a leader, but because you are human. This also allows followers the chance to become leaders, if they are stepping in to help lead along the way. Expressing humility differentiates a leader from a leader whom you love. If a leader forgets to express humility, they are fixated on the power that the position in leadership allows, of the validation of it,  and not the importance of the followers or the mission.

If our leader is expressing humility, and even if they’re not, as a follower we can focus on being humble as well. Being humble as a follower has a lot of similarities as being a humble leader, but the key difference is submission to your leader and support. In my life, expecting that I’m supposed to do everything my mother tells me makes me want to rebel. When digging into it, I found that my rebellion comes from a place that says “I know better than my mom” this also says “I do not value my mom’s opinions” and in short really means “I do not respect my mom.” Now, my mother is an amazing woman who feeds me, encourages me, takes care of me, loves me, and leads me. Her leadership is even in a style of Servant Leadership, where she puts my needs before hers and dedicates her life to me. (Autry 2001) Even in our relationship though, we fight, and about mostly petty things. The truth is, it all comes down to pride. We have an opinion, one of us is right, and there’s nothing that changes it. The heart of the matter is that, my mom is a leader in my life who I should respect, but because of my pride I am blinded to the validity of her opinions and reject all leadership. What I can do is become more submissive and more supportive of my mother’s decision and ideas. This allows her to lead me more efficiently because I have taken my pride out of the equation and am no longer causing conflict. My mom may not always be right, but if she makes a mistake there is no fear of judgement on either parts, if we are both expressing humility.

Being humble isn’t easy, because pride is something that is sort of bred into us and can even feel good, especially when we accomplish something. When first learning how to express humility, it will take practice. First, it takes the ability to recognize when your not being humble. Pride can be accounted for in group accomplishment, which is good to have, but more often than not, it is a reflective of self-worth. When something is accomplished and it feels good, ask yourself “who did this actually benefit?” and “who am I doing this for?” This allows you to recognize when you are achieving something for your own glory in leadership and not for others.  Secondly, temper authority. According to the article “Humility as a Leadership Trait” tempering authority is accepting that leadership is not about power. (Baldoni 2009) As a leader, you should be encouraging others to make decisions and imposing order, not holding power. This can look like delegating tasks to people, and as Servant Leadership suggests, being useful as a guide. (Autry 2001) Third, you should practice acknowledging what others do. By recognizing other’s accomplishments, it takes the prideful nature out and tames it to focus on the people around us, and not ourselves. This applies a lot to “Encouraging the Heart” of Servant Leadership which suggests that encouraging our followers helps build them to become leaders and followers. (Autry 2001) Lastly, we should be encouraged by our own mistakes and the mistakes of others, as they are opportunities to learn, even if they set us back. By finding encouragement from mistakes, it becomes less vital to not experience mistakes, as we are no longer 100% dependent of the strict success of a group that assumes everyone is perfect.

  George Arliss said “humility is the only true wisdom by which we prepare our minds for all the possible changes of life.” (1) The lack of humility is the reason we become afraid to fail. It’s not about putting the blame on others or yourself; it’s about becoming available to mistakes as a leader and follower, making them together, and learning from them together. When you feel like a failure, it is the result of having pride. Having pride becomes selfish, and so when you don’t meet up to others standards or the standards you’ve set for yourself, or even having others not meet those standards, it results in feeling ashamed, or like something isn’t working. Having humility means having an idea, but being aware that it isn’t perfect and you aren’t perfect. Pride is believing that as an individual you have accomplished something. I would, rather, encourage a group to have pride together, but that pride requires the humbleness that you are in a group and that it was the combination of everyone that accomplished something. I’m suggesting that among the characteristics that are suggested, (intelligence, confidence, charisma,  determination, sociability, and integrity) effective leadership should have humility amid those qualities. When looking at Mother Theresa’s life, she used humility in her walk of life to serve people which led her to winning the Nobel Peace Prize. She wasn’t a push over who lacked courage, as humility isn’t the lack of courage or faith in your ideas, she just humbled herself by serving others. (Northouse Ch 2) Having egotistical pride won’t win you a Nobel Peace Prize. Through humility we can apprise our followers and understand our leaders in a way that allows us to work together, depend on one another, build a simpatico community, and over all achieve more auspicious leadership. Through humility in leadership and life we become more grateful for the opportunities we have been given instead of the ones we don’t have.


348640.html. 1999-2011. 12/12/11
2. Autry, J., The Servant Leader: How to Build a Creative Team, Develop Great Morale, and Improve  Bottom-line Performance. A foundation of Character Vision, Characteristics of the Leader as  Servant. Pages 1-21.  Three River Press, 2001.

3.Baldoni, John. “Humility as a Leadership Trait”. HBR Blog Network. 09/15/09.
baldoni/2009/09/humility_as_a_leadership_trait.html. 12/12/11.

4.Northouse, Peter. Introduction to Leadership Concepts and Practice. SAGE Publications, 2012.


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