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Hankering for humility – a nearly forgotten virtue

Musings on leadership traits – and what's needed now


September 28, 2020
By Tanya Hewitt

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(gustavofrazao/Adobe Stock)

Humility has been written about since the dawn of civilization — nearly every era had a wise thinker who commented on its importance.

While it may not be difficult to find the word these days, finding the lived virtue is much, much harder.

What is humility? At its core, it is nothing but the truth, in its rawest form.

Pat Lencioni dedicated an entire podcast episode to humility. He spoke of just being true, acknowledging who you truly are.  It means to admit what you are not good at (or worse — claiming that you are when you are not), but also to admit what you are good at.

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Michael Jordan saying he is not good at basketball would not be humble, because he is good at basketball.

As such, both self deprecation (not giving yourself due credit for your talents and contributions) and the more obvious outward arrogance and bragging are not humble. It is recognizing one’s honest strengths, and honest weaknesses, but not elevating/denying either.

Being humble is difficult — we often over exaggerate or under exaggerate, but we should strive to be as truthful as possible.

Servant leadership

Another aspect of humility is a focus on others more than on oneself.

Some descriptors of Fred Rogers include being “resolutely determinedly kind” and having an “unashamed insistence on intimacy.”

It is allowing oneself to be genuinely proud of other people’s accomplishments, to experience true naches (pride in others), even in people with whom you have no connection.

This is now known as servant leadership, a term that  Lencioni does not endorse, as this is just leadership — it needs no qualifiers.

Types of leaders

Lencioni categorizes three types of leaders (or team players) regarding humility:

Truly humble

These people are ones who you want to be around, as they are welcoming, authentic and very true.

Humble wannabes

These people embrace the virtue of humility, but need some help to become humble.  They are committed to self development and becoming humble, and hence likeable.

Humility fakers

These are very dangerous people, people you think you want to be around until you realize it was all just a show.  In his team model, Lencioni labels these people “skillful politicians.”

These are the most difficult people to deal with, as it is hard to say ‘Stop being so nice, because I know you don’t mean it’.  Sadly, there are many examples of humility fakers out there — this is the dominant example of leadership we presently have.

True humility

We have very few examples of what true humility looks like.  Fred Rogers might be the most well known.

In the business world, Alan Mullaly, the former CEO of Ford, Gary Kelly CEO of Southwest Airlines, and Peter Pisters, CEO of MD Anderson Cancer Centre are all very humble leaders.

They do things like talk with the hired AV techs at a conference, the janitorial and security staff at a hospital, and devote two-hour Zoom calls at the beginning of the lockdown to check in on direct reports. And yet, they could deliver you pizza, and you would be none the wiser.

I think if some of the more well-known leaders who relish the limelight were to deliver you pizza, not only would the media be there to capture it, the average person would be dumbstruck to be in the presence of someone so famous.

In sports, Paul Casey graciously lost a PGA golf tournament in early August 2020, and the footage of his humble interview was difficult to find.

Tim Duncan did not take huge endorsements, did not hog the microphone, but there is a case that he is one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

We know different names, we have different names on our jerseys, we celebrate different heroes.

We can reset our compasses. Ask those closest to you to call you out when you are not being humble, and do what you can to exalt humility when you see it.

We can start to live more humbly, and celebrate humility.

Tanya Hewitt is the founder of Beyond Safety Compliance, a consultancy in Ottawa.