Humility in Leadership: Myths, Fears, and Truths

Humility-leadership-kate-nassar Humility in leadership conjures vivid images in leaders’ minds. The images seem to fall into opposite camps: indecisive wimpiness or non-arrogant self-confidence.  It’s fair to say that if your image of humility in leadership is one of weakness… then you are not likely to strive for HUMILITY!

On the other hand if you see humility in leadership as the self-confident strength to lead others to shine, you are on your way or almost there.

What if you want to move from seeing humility in leadership as weakness to embracing its strength? Or perhaps you as a leader already embrace it but your leader doesn’t.

I’ve walked this journey with many leaders. So let’s walk it now.

Humility in Leadership: Steps to See Strength

Humility in Leadership: Myths, Fears, Truths (Image by: Dopamind via Flickr Creative Commons License.)

Humility in Leadership: Myths & Fears

Change involves owning your own fears for they can either create myths or extend themselves. What common fear-based myths, stop your growth to humility in leadership?

  • Fear of being a weak leader.

    New leaders, transitional leaders, and long time leaders all know they have strengths and weaknesses. Those who sense their own weaknesses more intensely than their strengths, often fear being seen as a weak leader. Will people see them as too nice to lead? From this fear comes the myth that humility in leadership is indecisive weakness.

  • Fear of being disrespected.

    Like dominoes, one fear based myth leads to another. Leaders who believe the myth that humility is indecisive weakness, fear being disrespected as a wimp. They then embrace the myth that being a strong non-humble leader builds respect. Certainly, there are many real problems that develop under weak leaders including bullying among teams, power struggles, culture of blame, finger pointing, low morale, and even chaos. Ironically, the same trouble can develop with non-humble leaders. I have seen both — over and over and over.

  • Fear of entanglement.

    This fear is often subconscious and hidden from leaders’ awareness. There are personality types as well as past experiences that drive leaders to avoid true connection with those they lead. They see connection as entanglement and loss of objectivity. They then attach this fear to humility in leadership, and form a false conclusion: Humble leaders lose their objectivity and can’t handle tough conversations with employees. Humility does not cause a loss of objectivity. In fact, it strengthens it. Humility keeps you in learning mode and objectivity comes through knowledge.

Myth: Humble leaders lose their objectivity and can’t handle tough conversations with employees.” ~Kate Nasser #leadership #peopleskills Tweet this!

Humility in Leadership: Truths

  • Humility elevates purpose above the personal.

    Leaders’ humility guides all toward the greater goals instead of personal whimsy. It balances the empathy to connect with the objectivity to achieve.

  • Humility celebrates all talents encouraging all to contribute for success.

    Leaders’ humility naturally inspires, for it highlights everyone’s abilities instead of just the leaders’ strengths.

  • Humility removes the veneer and shows leaders’ greatness.

    Humility is transparent. It shows who and what leaders are. Team members trust this authenticity and engage without the distraction of hidden agendas and politics.

  • Humility is stronger than any yell!

    Leaders who check their egos at the door have far greater influence. Humility keeps leaders listening. Humility replaces the ego — the target of conflict — with “we go“. This inspires contribution and models ideal teamwork behaviors. Conversely, it is always a problem when dominating solo type leaders demand teamwork.

  • Humility smooths resistance to change and growth.

    Humility fosters continuous learning. It allows and encourages everyone to learn from mistakes for the benefit of all. This is a prerequisite to change and growth — the secret to business success. In fact, companies fail when the market changes and they don’t. Humility in leadership feeds a culture of learning and flexibility. No one method, nor practice, nor view, nor person is cast as best. The goal is to listen, perform, learn, and succeed.

Humility in Leadership: What Ifs

What if you as a leader practice humility yet the leader you report to sees it as weakness?

  • Find out specifically what that leader sees as weak? Small changes in your behavior can close the gap between you and your leader without abandoning humility.
  • Consider what if any cultural and personality differences there are between you and your leader. These differences impact how people view behaviors and describe their impact.

What if you as a leader practice humility and the teams see you as weak?

  • Ask them where and when do they need more strength from you? Humility is not generally the culprit. Most likely there are stressful situations that you are not seeing. Remember humility is not abandonment. Assist where they need help.
  • Engage team members and discuss your leadership style. Leadership evolves and their expectations may be ahead of your evolution. Be open to learning from them.

What if you as a leader are being told to develop some humility?

  • Write down how this makes you feel before you respond else you might react defensively. Then ask for specific examples of where your behavior needs to change.
  • Review the fears and myths noted above to guide your journey of growth. Have you worked with strong humble leaders? What did you learn from them? Have a mentor or coach help you evolve and refine your leadership style.

Humility in leadership is not a label nor a fixed set of behaviors. It is a mindset of inclusion and a model of continuous learning for success. It honors and engages all. It builds tremendous trust and sustains all especially in tough times of change.


So we’ve come quite a distance. What other what ifs shall we discuss?

About Kate Nasser

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™, guides leaders and teams to outstanding performance through positive interactions. With 25 years of experience, a Masters in Organizational Psychology, incredible intuition, strong critical thinking, and loads of energy, Kate activates change in Fortune 500 teams and enterprises on the rise. Keynote audiences, workshop participants, and blog readers sing her praises and come back for more.

Connect with Kate Nasser

Comments

  1. When people learn you are thinking about the organization, the team, them, the “us” and putting that before your own self interest, they will treat you like a leader, no matter how humble you are. George Washington didn’t talk a lot — he had bad teeth. He led by example and rode to the front. He didn’t claim invincibility, he lost battles, and he motivated his men by letting them know his neck was on the line, too. He accepted the Presidency but stepped down after two terms, evidence of his servitude to and commitment to We the people. There are a lot of self-important “leaders” running around who couldn’t take one night at Valley Forge.

  2. Humility is indeed a wonderful quality for a leader to possess. Unfortunately many leaders and managers feel unable to check their egos at the door because they feel trapped by an autocratic manager above them or by a culture that shos that power comes from being a bully boss.
    Nothing could be more counter productive. You are spot on that humility keeps leaders listening. Humility replaces the ego and is what makes a leader worth following.

    • Hi Heidi,
      Thank you for your comment! It is exactly the situation that gave rise to the post. A client of mine is dealing with exactly that situation. So often you must deal with that “what if”.

      I am so pleased that this post has raised an issue that many see as important.

      Heartfelt thanks,
      Kate

  3. Great post Kate–it makes me think about how much pressure there is to be an expert and to “know” things to be in positions of leadership. I think this is perpetuated both by many people who wish for someone to be all-knowing and by leaders who are fearful of acknowledging their humanity. There is opportunity, as you acknowledge, to accomplish more with greater purpose by our awareness of what humility truly promotes.

    I remember asking a sincere question as a nervous freshman in a Biology 101 class with over 100 students and having the professor say,”Gee, that’s a good question. I don’t know but I will find out.” I have since gone back and told the professor what a powerful impact this experience had on my life, way more than she probably ever imagined–just her simple willingness to admit to a group of freshman that she did not have all the answers taught me a lot about leadership and I have tried to practice this philosophy.

    • Christine,
      LOVE your story about the professor. Not only did she set a new definition of leadership in place for all the freshman, she also turned you into a collaborator with her “good question”. Little bits of engagement done regularly transform team members into accountable co-leaders!

      Many thanks for sharing this here.
      Best-
      Kate

  4. Powerful Kate. You have a talent for making the theoretical pragmatic without losing the potency of the context. Thank you for bringing the concept of humility to life.

    I love the point Mike added: “Humility : Not to think less of yourself but to think of yourself, less” When we can stand there humility is a natural way of being and it is hard not to embrace humility is the source of our strength as a leader.

    I have been pondering your question about what other “what if’s” are there for us to discuss.

    • I agree with you Susan about Mike’s point. It says in once sentence that humility is a gain not a loss.

      I am very grateful for your remark about my making the theoretical, pragmatic. I’ve always felt it — even growing up — and it it a big part of the work I do.

      And I would be very remiss if I didn’t say that your “Random Acts of Leadership” blog contributes much to both the spirit and practice of great leadership. Thank you!

      Warmest regards,
      Kate

  5. Audra August says:

    A very thoughtful post, Kate. I do believe there is a strong connection between humility in leadership and business success. Ego can be a destructive force in organizations. A good example is RIM/BlackBerry — a company that went from being Canada’s most admired ‘tech darling to losing 80% market share in a 12 month period. There was no doubt that ego and arrogance was a key factor.

    Humility will go a long way in building leadership capacity, an engaged organization, and happy shareholders.

    • Dear Audra,
      Interesting example you give. Arrogance leading to a sense of invulnerability — which breeds blindness — and ultimate failure.

      Very powerful chain of events. Wow.

      I appreciate these real life examples for they attest to the truth about humility in leadership and business.

      Many many thanks!
      Kate

  6. Very intresting principle you are sharing Kate. Things would indeed be going more smoothly if more leaders would embrace it without fear.
    Thank you to remind us about the importance of humility,
    Joan

  7. Brilliant timing. Yesterday I spent the day setting up a new business from a tribe of associates. We identified the values which would bind us together. Humility is now one of them. It was probably the value we felt most strongly about and the one we felt was most lacking in leaders.

    I’ve forwarded your blog to my new colleagues.

    Take care

    Dave

    • Wow Dave you touched me with this story. My whole goal is to make a difference. To make life and work easier, springier, and clearer.

      I am so very pleased that the timing was right. And grateful that you took the time to share your story here.

      Warmest wishes for continued success in your new biz. I am here as a resource.
      Kate

  8. Thanks Kate for providing such a thorough view on leadership and humility.

    Humility connects leaders to their deeper selves.

    It shifts the relationship from one of power to one more humane and authentic.

    The world so desperately needs authenticity.

    ♥ Thank you !

  9. Kate,
    Great article. I enjoyed the point of view. I think the points you raise regarding fears, and fears often standing in the way of leadership excellence, very true. I have seen this not just as relates to humility, however also how it relates to accountability and transparency. Leaders are often fearful to “access their ignorance” and admit they don’t know what they don’t know. The best leaders are the ones who own their fears, not just per showing humility and vulnerability, but in general. Being a genuine person, a genuine leader, is one great way to inspire follwership!

    • Dear Scott,
      So pleased you found these points on target. I like the simple truth you express in “leaders are fearful to access their ignorance”. Hmmm… I do wonder what do they think will happen? In my life, seeing what I don’t know has produced incredible learning and success.

      Great point you have made and I will ponder this for a bit.
      Many thanks,
      Kate

      • Thanks, Kate. I should clarify that’s an version of an old Edgar Schein phrase… “Access your ignorance.” It’s one that has stuck with me over the years, and one which often gets interesting looks from leaders….as if they never thought admitting what they don’t know is acceptable. Per what they think would happen, I look forward to reading another post from you with your pondered thoughts, and happy to add my 2 cents if you wish!

  10. Kate – a great article and such an important message. Thank you for emphasizing that effective leadership is humble leadership. I know of many that may think of this as weakness … but instead I agree with you that humility is a great strength. This correlates with the work of Brene Brown and her writing on vulnerabilities. Humility – showing vulnerability – all contribute to true leadership. Thank you!

    • Hi Susan,
      It’s interesting to me how words impact people. Some leaders react badly to the word vulnerability if it relates to them yet can handle the word humility. Others don’t want to hear the word humility yet see vulnerability in the same light they would see a corporate threat.

      In the end, no matter what we call it, successful leaders listen and engage for success.

      Many thanks for your contribution to this discussion.
      Kate

  11. Thanks Kate, this is great. Its important that we put the purpose ahead of personal gain. This is level 5 leadership.

    I once heard meekness put this way. It is like a felt covered brick. It looks soft and feels soft, but if you run into it, it will hurt!

    • Paul — purpose above personal gain — is a concept that sits well with leaders. They don’t seem to react negatively to it. When we accept that humility is the path to that very concept, we are well on our way to the highest levels of success.

      Many thanks!!
      Kate

  12. This is a brilliant piece and hopefully enough can read this and others share it so leaders see the strength behind humility.

    The common goal way before my “whimsy”

    Humility : Not to think less of yourself but to think of yourself, less

  13. Kate,

    Humility is a key leadership trait. It opens us up to listen, serve, understand, and gain strength from within and with the people around us. As you point out, humiliity is really misunderstood, but I believe some of the strongest leaders are the ones who embrace humility in all they do and say.

    Great post, as always! What a great initiative here, too!

    Jon

    • Jon,
      You highlight something very important that humility is an ongoing improvement in everything leaders say and do. It must be like the blood that courses through their veins that keeps everyone’s hearts beating toward a shared success.

      You always add dimension to any post you comment on and of course in the posts you author.

      Warmest thanks for this contribution!
      Kate

  14. Amazing points Kate! I’ve found the lack of humility is rooted in the lack of genuine confidence (not arrogance). I love the points you have brought up about humility. A sorely needed characteristic for an effective leader!

    • Dear William,
      I am inclined to agree with you that lack of confidence can block or chip away at humility. So can cultural and societal mores and pressures from leaders above.

      In any case, as we work on knowing ourselves we have so much more to offer through the humility we embrace.

      So pleased to read your comment today and many thanks for offering this to every reader here.

      Kate

  15. It is amazing how your post and Lolly’s from yesterday are so in tune with each other. If I did not know better I would have thought you collaborated. :-) I love this topic, I heard Jim Collins speak about 6 months ago and he said that most of the leaders that his team has met and studied from successful companies are not the wild, charismatic type we often think of in leaders, but they are simple, brilliant, and humble. I love how you have broken it out here and dived deep int a topic. We should have have a discussion sometime and do a podcast. Great work Kate!

    Best,
    Todd

    • Thank you Todd:
      - for inviting me into this exploration
      - for seeing the connection between me and Lolly (we discovered it with the same glee)
      - and for giving me the space to dive deep. Most of my posts at not this long!

      As for a podcast, let’s talk!

      I hope everyone is having a super weekend. I go later today to explore the artistic side of me in Latin Dancing. Will take a mobile device so I can reply to comments in transit.

      Kate

  16. Thanks Kate, this is a great article! The journey through the myths, fears, truths and what ifs is a incredibly powerful way of opening leaders to the possibilities and benefits of making shifts in their mindset.

    This really stands out: “It is a mindset of inclusion and a model of continuous learning for success.”

    • Thank you Susan! To me humility has never been about being quiet or shy … I am an extrovert :) It has been a journey to see beyond my own view. I prize humility for the prize it delivers — sustenance through inclusion and collaboration.

      Isn’t that what leadership is — creating the means for all to gather for success?
      Kate

      • I think that’s a really important point that you make. Many people do associate being humble or having humility with an introvert but you certainly are shining the light on those myths.

  17. Hi Kate, Humility is such a mis-understood quality. The Bible says, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” That’s a profound revelation about the importance of humility. Thanks for reminding us that humility isn’t weakness, it’s strength.

  18. Kate, humility is often one of the most misconstrued character trait I have come across. As you correctly put it, many compare it to weakness. However, I often remind myself that humility is my safety valve. Like a pressure cooker has a steam-relief valve to prevent it from blowing up, so does humility keep me grounded even when I am in the lofty heights of success. Being humble keeps me connected to family, friends, workmates, etc. It keeps me human, able to care enough for others than myself. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful and timely piece.

  19. Thanks for this great article Kate.

    I seem to spend so much time in my coaching practice working with leaders who perceive pressure to be ‘the greatest’ the ‘all knowing’ the ‘always in control’. Truth is, that’s not only scary and isolating, it’s also disabling of everyone else!

    You’ve offered some really simple and effective methods for unpicking ego and perceived pressure in order that leaders can get back to who they really are as people… and that unlocks the potential of followers,

    • Well said Richard. The “all knowing… leader” disables many people. I am witnessing it right now at a client and the disability is spreading! Working to uncover the possibilities through awareness/truth and slow the dysfunctional spread.

      Thanks for adding the ‘disability’ aspect of non-humility to this discussion.
      Kate

  20. What a great read Kate, as always! The myth of the invulnerable leader still features strongly in many of the organisations I work with, and at an organisation level it’s truly dangerous.

    We’re all standing on someone else’s shoulders and the most honest of us are saying ‘I’m scared too but it will be easier if you are with me”.

    We’re not supposed to be jealous either but I wish this was something I’d written LoL!

    Todd, strikes me there is an e-book in the contributions this month, the standard is so high…

    Thanks again Kate, you should be humbly proud!

    • David,
      Your imagery of connection in this illustrates exactly why humility is stronger than invulnerability. Invulnerability is false thus incredibly weak. Humility represents the truth in every way — none of us works or lives alone. Everything depends on everyone.

      I am grateful for your example and honored by your compliment.
      Kate

  21. Dear Kate,

    Kate, You know I am your biggest fan!
    This post is powerful and profound.

    I simply love how you explore and engage the myths of leadership.
    Only you can make the complex and make sound meaningful and accessible.
    Thank you!

    Lolly

    • Lolly,
      Profound is a word that comes along very rarely and your connecting it to me does bring tears to my eyes. As I wrote this post I could feel myself going deeper and deeper and before submitting could only hope that I had lifted others up not buried them under.

      You explore and engage in “deep in the heart” matters every week in #leadfromwithin chat and I have grown from being a part of it.

      Thank you!
      Kate

  22. What a tremendously powerful post, Kate! Spot on! My favorite part? “Humility replaces the ego — the target of conflict — with “we go“. ” Love it!

    • Alli, The part you love is also the part that many others leaders have loved as well. It moves the image of humility from shy/retiring straight into the logical truth of leadership — it is “we go”!

      And BTW: You are living proof, especially in social media, that it is “we”.

      Thanks for being you and still “we”.
      Kate

  23. Great post Kate! :) You are touching a huge challenge here, specially for middle-managers, that can have a style that do not match with either top level management and//or the staff’s image of a leader. I have been in this position, working as a buffer between rigid top level managers and staff that had tons of ideas, engagement and drive. The staff, did not understand the direction of the company and the management did not understand how to include the staff – In the middle, the middle management team spent a lot of time trying to calm things down. I knew then that we could solve a lot of trouble with a little more humility in all levels of the organization. But the top level management style was playing a hard line, so I quit and moved on.

    Thanks for shining some light on an important leadership trait.

    • Hi Frode,
      You have taken this post to another level Frode by your real life example. Other middle managers have echoed your thoughts to me so many times! It was that message that drove me to include the issues in the “what if” section.

      As for your moving on, bravo to your simple clear vision and confidence. Knowing when conditions make it impossible to effect change is a valuable gift. It gives us the chance to chart new ground w/o carrying yesterday’s bags with us.

      Thank you for your story and much continued success to you.
      Kate

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