Fostering humility


Humility is an important trait for leaders because it opens their hearts to learning new things and lessens a natural tendency to judge others harshly. I believe that leaders who are humble open-hearted learners to are most likely to be successful in their leadership.

Yet I’ve always wondered where the line is between being humble and having low self-esteem or (on the other side of the spectrum) being arrogant. Leaders sometimes tell me that they are struggling with self-esteem issues. Just in case you’re interested in becoming less arrogant (ha!), this post can address that too.

People often think of humility as always yielding to others. But I like the balanced definition on Psyblog where humility is defined as accurate self-assessment, the ability to put one’s achievements into perspective, being open to new ideas, enhanced focus on others and appreciation for one’s surroundings. This makes humility reachable and realistic; it helps us to know when to yield and when to stay firm.

How do you become and remain humble? What practices and behaviors might increase your self-knowledge, perspective, openness, and appreciation? Here is a start:

Evaluating feedback: Whether you’ve received a 360 or you’ve asked for/received feedback from stakeholders, take what you hear seriously but remember that it’s based on perceptions. A perception is not necessarily “the truth”, giving you some freedom to decide what you want to do about it. Ignore it, trash it, or take action – your choice – but ponder it first. How important is it for you to do something about the perception? Remember to surround yourself with those who will speak their truth and then you must listen to it.

Self-assessing: You can self-assess with a proven instrument such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. You can also make an effort to become more aware of your behaviors as you go about your day. Set aside reflection time to ask yourself about….yourself. Questions like: “What am I good at?” or ” What developmental needs do I have?” and “Where do I want to focus my self-improvement efforts?” and “What behaviors will help me to reach my leadership goals?” are a place to start.

Take care of yourself first: You need to help others, coach them, guide them, redirect them. If you want to lead others with grace and energy, you must be healthy emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Eat healthy, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and spend time with things that fulfill you.

Open your heart: Listen without judgment to the new ideas that others have. Try to find common ground and to understand their point of view. Open your heart without adversely judging them; seek what’s good in them. Take some risks, and learn from your successes and your failures.

Maintain a practice of gratitude: Pay attention and be present throughout your day. What things that surround you make you grateful? What is it about that person who annoys you that you are thankful for? Reflect every day on what and who you are grateful for, even if it is the failures you’ve had or the people who disappoint.

What would you add to this list to help encourage humility in yourself?

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

3 comments on “Fostering humility

  1. Hi Mary Jo,

    In addition to your excellent suggestions, I focus on how to make those around me successful. Once I focus on their success more than that n my own, I start showing up and behaving as a more humble person.



  2. Great article Mary Jo. Written with humility, as one would expect from the title.

    I believe many of the ideas expressed in this article can be sought by practicing Mindfulness: being aware of the self, including one’s motivations, intentions, and biases. I’ve also read somewhere that True Confidence (and humility) is an accurate assessment of one’s ability, where as arrogance comes from an over-assessment of one’s ability.

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Muneer, thank you for your additional thoughts – they are very valuable. I especially appreciate the distinction between true confidence and arrogance – it’s a fine line that leaders (and indeed all human beings who are working to be better individuals) walk between confidence and arrogance. Thanks.

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