The Virtue of Humility
“Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.” – St. Vincent de Paul
Humility is one of the virtues often mentioned in relation to leadership. But what is humility and is it a virtue?
In this guide, we’ll examine the basis of the virtue, the false assumptions people often make regarding humility and how it is an important quality for leaders to have. We’ll also provide you three tips on how to exercise your humility in every day life.
WHAT IS HUMILITY?
The dictionary definition of humility says: “The quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.”
Humility is considered a state of being, highlighted by your behavior and approach to things. It’s also considered one of the virtues of the human condition, along with kindness, patience, diligence, charity, temperance and chastity.
Humility is often thought to occur in the absence of pride. To C.S. Lewis, pride was about competition and therefore not a virtue. Pride manifests in people thinking they are “cleverer” or “richer”, for instance.
On the other hand, in the absence of pride, you find humility, which sees no need for competition. In humility, you are nothing more and nothing less than the other people around you.
In essence, humility is not about hiding away or about becoming a ‘wallflower’, but it is about the realization your abilities and actions are not better or less. Humility doesn’t require the ranking of things, but it calls for the understanding of the true value or worth of things.
One important point about humility is how it can’t be faked. But this doesn’t mean humility is difficult; in fact, it’s one of the simplest things in the world. But the more you start thinking about how to be more humble, the harder you make it for yourself to actually be humble.
Instead of focusing on the humility within you, you should pay more attention to celebrating the achievements of others. It is by acknowledging others and understanding the universal values we all share that you start becoming more humble. In a way, understanding the vastness of the world around us can make us realize our own value and the humility we should feel.
Follow the beautiful advice by the Dalai Lama:
“I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.”
THE FALSE DEFINITIONS OF HUMILITY
“The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it.” – Mignon McLaughlin
It can be helpful to understand the virtue of humility by examining what it isn’t. Perhaps the most common mistake is to associate humility with false modesty.
It’s easy to start lessening your achievements in the face of compliments, thinking this is the humble thing to do. If your manager tells you did a great job, you shouldn’t reply with “no, it wasn’t really me” and “I didn’t really do anything there”. Instead, a humble thing to do would be to take in the praise, thank the manager for it and perhaps acknowledge the other team members that helped you along the way. For instance, you could state, “Thank you, it feels nice to have accomplished the project and meet the objectives. Of course, I’m happy for the effort by Tina and Sam. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
The peculiarity of humility is further highlighted by the ease of which it turns to the exact opposite of itself. By highlighting your humility, you are in essence acknowledging a valuable quality in yourself and your humility changes to something else. This is perhaps best highlighted in the lyrics of a hit song from the 1980. The song says, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way”.
If you go around telling everyone how humble you are, you most likely are exactly the opposite. Humility isn’t something that requires acknowledgement or recognition. You shouldn’t become humble because you think it’s the right thing to do – humility comes from within and from the acknowledgement, you aren’t any better or any less than other people.
Finally, it can be a mistake to think humility is the opposite of self-confidence. But being humble doesn’t mean you can’t be confident. In fact, by being humble, you can be more confident because you are aware of the value of your actions without thinking they matter more or less.
HUMILITY IN A HISTORICAL CONTEXT
“I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.” – Lao Tzu
As the above quote by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu shows, humility has been part of the human discussion for a long time. The human condition was often a topic discussed in China, as well as the ancient Greece and it has since been at the center of most religious tradition.
The perception of humility is slightly different depending on the school of thought and tradition. For the ancient Greeks, humility was discussed in the context of pride (hubris) and one of the main stories involving humility was Homer’s The Iliad.
The story examines the behavior of Achilles, an invincible solder who found himself unhappy because King Agamemnon took away his slave woman. While his countrymen are fighting the Trojan, Achilles refuses to fight and eventually starts making his way out of the battlefield.
Meanwhile, a Trojan fighter, Hector, kills Achilles’ friend, which eventually gets Achilles to act in revenge. He kills Hector, ties his body to a chariot and drags it around for nine days.
It’s easy to think today that Achilles is the hero of the story, but actually, the ancient Greeks felt the actions were a consequence of pride. Instead of being arrogant and considering only your own fate, you should instead show humility. To the Greeks, an excess pride will only lead to vengeance from gods and thus humility must be exercised.
On the other hand, religions have added their own distinct interpretations of what being humble means. While many religious traditions continued to favor humility as a way of avoiding a punishment from god, they approached it not through pride like the Greeks, but by rejection egotism. The idea in Judaism and Christianity was more focused on recognizing the limitations of humans, compared to god.
For Christians, Jesus Christ, who decided to endure the earthly humiliation and punishment, just to allow greater redemption to take place, often personifies humility.
HUMILITY AND LEADERSHIP
“To possess self-confidence and humility at the same time is called maturity.” – Jack Welch
While the religious tradition still holds true in modern society, humility is not only viewed through the religious lens. Humility has become a central theme in discussions about leadership as well.
The popular notion has long been that you have to step up and be a bit boastful in order to get ahead. Big sporting stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Cam Newton talk about their own abilities with pride and arrogance. There are also leaders, such as Donald Trump, who focus on their greatness. These types of leaders highlight what they’ve done and achieved, bosting about their past and future accomplishments.
But is humility a bad quality on leaders? If we examine it through science, the evidence is starting to be evident: humility makes you a better leader.
In a study by the University of Maine, researchers found that “humility was the most strongly linked (personality trait) with helpfulness”. Furthermore, the study found humility didn’t just make people more helpfulness, but also ensured they enjoyed better work ethic, generosity and reliable relationships.
According to evolutionary scientists, the trait, which requires a person to put others’ needs first, has survived because humans have always required co-operation to survive. While the need for co-operation has changed from surviving the savannahs to staying alive in the corporate world, the benefits of humility, empathy and helpfulness remain a key for success.
This ability to put your ego on hold and to empathize with other people has been further linked with good leaders. In 2014, scientist studied 1,500 leaders and their employees. The big headline finding of the study concluded, “humble leaders get more commitment”.
The study found that a leader’s ability to demonstrate strong self-insight and humility provides them with a proactive approach. Furthermore, when employees experience this type of leadership, they are more committed to work.
The researchers recommended leadership development programmes should start paying more attention in self-reflection. Karoline Hofslett Kopperud, researcher at BI Norwegian Business School, said, “[training in self-reflection] will give the leader a better understanding of how his or her behavior is perceived and interpreted by the employees.”
The ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes and to appreciate the deed, instead of the position, can help in gaining more trust. Trust, in turn, is essential for the creation of good teams. In essence, a good leader should understand that a bigger paycheck or a fancy title doesn’t necessarily mean you are more valuable to the organization than the other employees.
Greater humility in leaders can help you open up to other opinions and viewpoints, which will help you lead better. The creative boost from humility means you:
- Don’t assume you know it better or that you have nothing to input.
- Are interested in what others have to say and offer because you understand everyone can add something to the project.
- You also understand how to measure the value of an idea or a practice. You don’t assume certain things are automatically better than others, but you test and evaluate to find the underlying cause of real value.
A Catalyst study into six different countries and their employees found an interesting link between altruistic behavior and innovation. Innovation went up in these teams, the more humility the management showed, creating a welcoming environment for people. The image shows how creative behavior went up, if managers showed humility.
HOW TO PRACTICE HUMILITY
Considering how humility can be a helpful trait to possess, it’s useful to train your ability to be humble. In the era of social media, which feeds your ego, regular exercise in humility is worth trying.
Learn the value the deed itself
As we’ve explained, humility doesn’t mean you need to shy away from responsibilities or stop doing things that might provide you the recognition amongst colleagues or friends. But instead, you must start understanding the value of the action itself.
Don’t think good actions as vehicles for receiving more fame or recognition. On the other hand, don’t hide away from good deeds just to avoid the spotlight. But consider the action and what value it would provide others.
For example, if your manager says there’s a big project that needs to be done, you shouldn’t start evaluating whether to take the lead in terms of what is means to you. You need to valuate the deed for what it does to the company or your colleagues. Don’t shy away just because you know you’ll be noticed or that you should take the role because you know it’ll bring you rewards. A humble person would take it and understand the value for the company and the happiness for your manager for getting it done.
Furthermore, when you do tasks, remember no success story happens with a single person. As the great innovator Henry Ford said:
“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
Do the expected without boasting about it
Follow the wisdom of Winston S. Churchill, who said:
“Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.”
Related to the other point is the exercise of doing your tasks without making a big number out of it. The action matters and is valuable by itself, not you doing it.
A great example of humility in doing what is expected of you comes from the World War II generation. Soldiers have repeatedly said they simply did what was expected of them and that’s that. The sacrifice wasn’t for fame and glory, as the stakes were too high for it – young men risked their lives for the greater good.
Tom Brokaw writes in his book The Greatest Generation about the idea of fulfilling one’s duty. Brokaw states, “The Word War II generation did what was expected of them. But they never talked about it.” Indeed, if you listen to the interviews of veterans, it’s never about what they did. It is about the collective responsibility and duty.
Listening to the stories of these heroic people in these tragic circumstances is something that can teach each of us humility.
Stop competing over achievements
Finally, you can exercise humility by letting go of competition. Not all competition, but specifically the competition over achievements. Competing over achievements is linked to the excessive pride discussed in the first section – the “I’m richer, better, cleverer, etc.”
If you are in a conversation with people and someone tells a story of a thing they’ve done, don’t “one-up” it with your own story. For instance, if the person says they recently travelled to Italy and spent time in a lovely four-star hotel, you shouldn’t start boasting about a better experience you had in a five-star hotel.
Instead, learn to appreciate other people and their experiences. In fact, listen to people’s stories with an open mind and always find something you can learn from them. It doesn’t need to be a tangible skill, but it can be about their approach to life and relaxation, for instance.
Be happy for other people and enjoy their experiences just as much as you enjoy your own. Don’t expect your experiences to be any more worthy than others. In fact, understand everyone’s affairs are valuable, nothing more or nothing less.
If you notice someone else is doing the ‘one-upping’ to you, don’t be mad or join in the competition. Allow them to take the moment in the sun and be the virtuous person who avoids useless competition. Keep in mind the advice from Nido Quebein, who said:
“Winners compare their achievements with their goals, while losers compare their achievements with other people.”
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” – C.S. Lewis
Humility is a characteristic often talked about when great leaders are mentioned. Philosophers have praised it since the early dawn of humanity and religions around the world are eager to teach the value of it. Yet, it is a tricky virtue; one that can quickly take a different shape if you aren’t careful with its application. Humility can be exercised every day through simple actions: by focusing on other people, by examining your inner strengths and weaknesses, and by being aware of the common value we all have no matter what our role or position.
Humility is not the absence of desire or confidence. You don’t need to shy away from responsibilities or even the limelight in order to be humble. But you do need to acknowledge you aren’t any better or any less than the people around you, and it is the group contribution that often helps us achieve things, whether or not we did most of the work ourselves.