Humility is a Critical Leadership Competency: But Can it Be Taught?
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less” -C. S. Lewis
I’m alarmed by the humility deficit in many leaders. Why do we reinforce, recognize and promote the brazen and arrogant, over the humble? Why do we teach our teams to cater to executives as celebrities?
I’m always in awe of the truly humble–those consistently making enormous sacrifices and deflecting the credit. The most humble leaders are great teachers and inspire courageous followers.
Is humility teachable?
Apparently yes. I’m audacious enough to write a post on teaching humility. Let me add a caveat. I don’t have humility handled.
Truly humble leaders don’t try to impress us with titles, credentials, or accomplishments. They pull out the best in us. Or as Max Brown wrote in The Character-Based Leader,
“Humility isn’t timidity or weakness. It is confidence, wisdom and grace combine with an acknowledgement that we are all imperfect.”
5 Ways To Help a Leader Show Up a Bit More Humble
1. Build Confidence
Often what passes for arrogance is actually fear. Some leaders attempt to “humble” other leaders or “put them in their place” through public criticism or embarrassment. This tactic actually has the opposite impact. We need leaders who are confident enough to not need to talk about it.
2. Teach the Art of Great Questions
A great way to teach humility is by teaching the art of courageous questions.
A courageous question differs from a general “how can we make this better” question in two ways. It’s both specific and vulnerable.
Specific in that you are just asking about one thing. And it’s vulnerable because it assumes improvement is possible.
A few examples:
1. What’s one policy we have that just sucks?
(By the way, frontline employees LOVE to answer this question, because they’re hearing about such policies from their customers every day.)
2. If you could change one thing about your job what would that be?
3. What is one thing I could do to help you be more productive as you’re working from home?
4. Do you have one suggestion that would improve our virtual team meetings?
3. Get Them Out of Their Comfort Zone
Give them a stretch assignment or project in an area they know nothing about. I can tell you from experience, nothing is more humbling than being clueless. Put them in areas where they must rely on their team or peers to be successful.
4. Give them tools to manage their blind spots
Do a 360 assessment. Give them a coach. Encourage your team to surface and work through their own conflicts.
5. Model it
- Be a servant leader
- Admit when you are wrong
- Coach privately
- Recognize, honor and reward humble behaviors on teams, as ironic as this sounds. Minimize desire for folks to “toot their own horn” by tooting it for them.
- Reject special treatment, even when it’s convenient. Live by the same rules and standards you expect your team to uphold.
Humility comes more naturally for some than others. But it’s not a fixed state. Humility is both teachable and learnable. Before you write off that arrogant manager, why not give a few of these ideas a try?
Your turn. How do you teach leaders humility?
Land in the AND: The Power of Confident Humility