Can We Teach Humility to Leaders?

Monday, February 3, 2014

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 spiritual teachers.

But is humility teachable?  

The short answer: Yes. Truly humble leaders don’t try to impress others with titles, credentials, or accomplishments.  They pull out the best in others. 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.”

Here are five ways to teach humility:


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. Teach leaders to have the art of asking provocative questions: “What does the team think about this idea?” and “Who did you involve in this decision?” Also be sure to teach them the power of pause.  

3. Get leaders 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 arenas where they must rely on their team or peers to be successful. 


4. Give leaders tools. Give your leaders the tools they need to manage their blind spots. Start with employing a 360 assessment. Some leaders may need a coach.  Always encourage your team to surface and work through their own conflicts.

5. Model behaviors. Bottom line: You must model the behavior you want to see in your leaders. 

  • 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.


About the Author

Karin Hurt, founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has more than two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc.'s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.

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