Humility seems underrated in corporate leadership. Yet, it is arguably the single, most important determinant of how power and authority will be used by a leader. There have been several articles written on the importance of humility in leadership. This article is written as an extension of the existing discussion(s), and in particular, to explore how to cultivate humility. I approach this topic not as an expert; far from it. In fact, I have lost staff because of the lack of humility on my part.
Humility has been defined in several ways. For the purpose of this article, humility will be taken as “not thinking that we are better than we really are in terms of our importance and our ability; but having sound judgement." In the same vein, someone said “people with humility do not think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less.” I fully agree.
Developing humility can be challenging because character formation works differently from the conventional knowledge-based approach to learning. In my previous occupation, my primary responsibility was to help individuals grow in character. The process was baffling. I discovered that one’s knowledge of a character trait does not necessarily translate into one’s practice of the same trait. Take my life for instance. Though I may cognitively know a lot about humility (due to my work), my personal failings remain because of a lack of self-awareness. Developing humility requires a great level of self-awareness, which is not easily acquired.
Suppose a student requires two magic bullets to ace an exam – knowledge of the subject matter and time management skills. Most will agree that knowledge of the subject matter will DIRECTLY affect the grades while time management affects the end outcome INDIRECTLY.
Knowledge of the subject matter will directly impact a student's ability to answer the exam questions and attain good results. Time management is also required for effectiveness. Unless we apportion time to study, time to rest, time to relax, we will not be effective. Too much studying and insufficient rest can be counter-productive. Without good time management, it is often difficult to ace an exam. Time management is a skill that indirectly impacts a student’s result.
I would like to suggest that character traits are best cultivated through INDIRECT means. Trying to be more humble in a direct way can only lead a person to be prideful. It is like making a statement “I’m so proud that I can become humble.” It simply does not work. Instead, allowing people to come to their own realizations of their pride may work better. This is self-awareness. Gaining self-awareness is an extremely important skill that a top leader must possess.
How, then, does an indirect approach look like?
One possibility is through acts of service. Through acts of service, one may discover their prideful areas. Are there tasks I deem too menial to act upon? Am I upset when I am not recognized for the things I have done? Why am I reacting negatively to feedback given to me?
Another example of an indirect approach to cultivating humility is to practice listening. Intentionally listening to others and paraphrasing what they say is a way to realize if we are more interested in others or in ourselves. Leaders who are more interested to tell others what to do usually end up causing more hurt because of a lack of empathy. When the realization takes place, it often reveals how much focus we place on ourselves. Listening is one of the hardest things for leaders with big egos. I regret to say this is one of my most painful realizations.
In essence, humility is a realization of how proud we are. Engaging in good disciplines such as listening and intentionally serving others are powerful ways of gaining self-awareness. Other approaches to gaining greater self-awareness include journaling and giving thanks. Some may even engage a leadership coach to work through character flaws or business challenges together. I will not go into discussing the latter as there is numerous literature on it. I will, however, share a personal story.
One of my core beliefs about human relationships and interactions is that it takes two hands to clap. I do not believe marriages fail because of one party. Neither do I believe that relationships break down because of the failings of one party. The power of such a belief should ideally empower me to reflect, take ownership of my mistakes, and adjust to my actions and behavior. This belief should lead me to grow in my relationship with others. Unfortunately, a lack of humility meant that I ended up focusing on pointing out where the other party has failed. In short, I like to blame others rather than to search my heart. I increasingly realized how much pain I have caused my family, close friends, and my work team. My pride has caused me to reject feedback and suggestions. I even rationalized that I was less at fault and more humble since I was constantly adjusting my behavior. Sadly, behavioral change can sometimes be superficial. In thinking that I have grown in humility, I have ironically become more prideful instead.
Concluding Thoughts: The truth hurts. However, if we believe that humility is thinking of ourselves less, it is extremely freeing to be able to focus on the beauty and joy of growing our character.
Written by Victor Seet
As a Gallup Certified StrengthsFinder coach, Victor is passionate about helping individuals and families leverage their strengths for a better quality of life. He now runs his own training company, Strengths School™ and actively conducts Strengthsfinder leadership and team building workshops to businesses and schools in Singapore as well as Hong Kong, China, Thailand and India.