Humility might not be the first quality that comes to mind when you think of leadership skills, but studies are showing that it is one of the most vital characteristics of successful leaders. Leaders who practice humility engender trust, empower their subordinates, look at failures as challenges and develop a team spirit — all of which leads to happier employees and more profits for the company.
Further, humble leadership has the same positive influence regardless of gender or nationality, according to a study by Catalyst: "Humility was one of the most significant indicators, after empowerment, of altruistic leadership in this study."
Humility may be too easily dismissed as a leadership quality because people associate it with weakness, but according to several leadership experts, humility simply means understanding your strengths and weaknesses and recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of others. Angela Sebaly, co-founder and CEO of Personify Leadership and author of "The Courageous Leader" (Wiley, 2017), adds that humble leaders are focused on the big picture of mission and team rather than themselves.
"Humility is about minimizing the self and maximizing the bigger purpose you represent," Sebaly said. “When you think about humility in that way, it becomes a vital competency in leadership because it takes the focus from the 'I' to 'We.' Leaders with humility engage us and give us a sense of identity and purpose."
The Catalyst study supports Sebaly's assertion. It found that regardless of business or country, humble leaders make their employees feel included, which in turn makes them more comfortable in proposing innovations and helping others.
True humility also requires courage and trust that stem from the leaders' confidence in themselves and their abilities.
"There's a balance a leader has to strike between confidence and humility. Confidence is not about swagger but about the ability to project presence in the room, coordinate other people's actions, and help others take action," said Susan Bates, founder of leadership development organization Bates.
Bates conducted a four-year study of leading executives around the world to find the 15 most important leadership qualities, which included humility as well as confidence.
"We're not just guessing. This is grounded in research," she said. "We include humility in the list of qualities that we know enable leaders to have presence and influence."
Developing humility while maintaining confidence
The key to developing humility is as difficult to enact as it is simple to explain. Sebaly says the first step is to accept and love your strengths and talents.
"The more we experience humility, the more we reconcile the part of us that understands that we are important with the part of us that needs further proof," she said.
The second step is being ready to learn through painful, humbling experiences. Everyone has a time in his or her career when they will mess up or fall short of expectations, and the more a leader pushes himself or herself to grow, the more such experiences they will face. Sebaly likened it to going to the dentist: It will likely be painful and we may get scolded about flossing, but in the end, we are glad we went, and we benefit in the long run.
Even so, many people retreat from potentially painful situations, especially if they expect the discomfort to be severe. Sebaly said that in her experience, most leaders will show courage as long as the pain is at the 1 to 3 level (on a scale of 1 to 10), but truly successful leaders will go into more humbling situations with an open mind and a desire to learn. Those people, in general, break past middle management.
Bates said that to develop your sense of humility, you must learn your strengths and weaknesses. Solicit honest feedback from employees and peers, especially on how well you listen to ideas. ("Do I allow space for people to express ideas before stating my own?" "Do I come across as needing to have all the answers?)
She also suggested that when running a meeting, wait before offering answers to let others weigh in. This letting go can be hard, especially for experienced leaders who may have tackled similar problems earlier in their careers. However, empowering the team members to handle the issue not only gives them a chance to grow, but frees you up to handle higher-level issues.
Finally, Bates suggested acknowledging to yourself that you don't have all the answers. That simple act can free you to be open to the suggestions of others, she said.
Demonstrating humility means speaking to the higher purpose of accountability to the business or community. As such, it does not rob you of power, but enhances your authority as a leader.
"Leaders that demonstrate humility hold people accountable, have tough conversations, and make difficult choices," Sebaly said. "They role-model, seeking the bigger purpose above the self-seeking approach. Those are the kinds of leaders that people will jump off a cliff for."