Monday Mornings with Madison

Humility: The Trait that Costs Nothing but Delivers a Huge ROI

Word Count:  1,477 

Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

In today’s PR-driven, social-media crazed, self-promoting world, humility is a quality that has lost its appeal.  While everyone is busy yelling “Look at me!  Listen to me!” with their selfies, posts, videos and TED talks, the humble are not boastful.  They adopt a modest posture that refuses to draw attention for themselves.  Humility is self-effacing, and unpretentious.  The humble person will not think or act as if he is better than anyone else, and won’t try to impress others by appearing or seeming to have greater importance, talent or culture than he actually has.  The humble person might come across as shy, even if he is actually outgoing and confident.  According to Meriam-Webster dictionary, humility is “a freedom from pride or arrogance.”[1] says it is the “modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.”[2] In fact, humility comes from the root word humilis, which means low in Latin.

In the workplace, humble people often go unnoticed because they are not boastful.  They don’t draw attention to themselves for their own benefit.  When they share or contribute, it is because they have something to offer that adds value or helps others.  Those who don’t brag are often seen as having minor value and contributing little to the team.  Their modesty is attributed to their work rather than their personality.  That explains why humility is no longer seen as a virtue.  And yet genuine humility is quite possibly the most valuable quality to have in employees today.   Here’s why.

Humble, Beginning to End

Job descriptions and employment ads seldom, if ever, look for candidates who possess a high degree of humility.  It isn’t seen as a desirable quality in worker bees, and it certainly isn’t prized in leaders.  Companies seek employees who are cooperative, decisive, organized, communicative, inquisitive, reliable, polite, mature, loyal, cheerful, driven, intelligent, punctual, resilient, and detailed.   They want leaders who are driven, trustworthy, honest, dedicated, creative, open-minded and fair.  Humility is seldom mentioned.

Companies also show no humility.  Each company proclaims from the rooftops how it is better than its competitors.  Marketing and advertising strategies are, themselves, inherently boastful.  Tag lines constantly crow about how a product is ‘new and improved’ or ‘better than’ the rest.  Headlines brag how an organization is the ‘first’, the ‘best’ or the ‘most’ of whatever they claim to do.  Broader reach.  Higher quality.  Better features.  More experience.  Deeper bench of knowledge.  Superior customer service.  Sales presentations point out the unique selling proposition and added value of a product or service.

It is no surprise then that humility is all but ignored by recruiters, HR reps, and hiring managers.  However, companies should hire for humility, perhaps above all other qualities.  Why?  Humble employees have their focus on promoting the company, not themselves.  Thanks to their demeanor, humble employees are able to connect better with customers.  Thomas Merton once said that “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”  Given the increased importance of being authentic and genuine, humility is genuine.

This “it’s not about me” attitude also helps humble people to get along well with coworkers.  There are fewer conflicts between employees when ego is removed from the equation.  The humble employee will be open to how the team can work together to solve a problem or advance an idea.   To the humble person, it’s not about me, but we.  Not only is the humble employee open to the contributions of others, this attitude also allows the humble person to grow and learn.  Given the rapid pace of technological advances, intellectual humility is key to being able to embrace new developments and adapt to changes.

But humble leaders are even more valuable than humble employees for a number of reasons.  Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, in their Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders”, believe that humility is ”one of four critical leadership factors for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included.”[3] Similarly, the Schumpeter Blog in The Economist said, “If leadership has a secret sauce, it may well be humility. A humble boss understands that there are things he doesn’t know. He listens: not only to the other bigwigs…, but also to the kind of people who don’t get invited, such as his customers.”[4] The humble leader is open to ideas from many sources because he sees the contribution of others equal to his own.

Humility is about Less Self

Given how valuable humility is as a quality in leaders, it begs the question of whether humility is a trait that can be taught and augmented.  If humility is good, how can leaders increase their modesty?  There are a number of ways for leaders to demonstrate increased humility, but these aren’t easy for someone who is not genuinely humble.

  1. “Share mistakes as teachable moments. When leaders showcase their own personal growth, they legitimize the growth and learning of others.  By admitting to their own imperfections, they make it okay for others to be fallible too.”[5]

    In their article, Prime and Salib suggest that this type of humility – admitting foibles and fallibility — increases the personal connection between leaders and employees because people who make mistakes come across as more human and relatable.  Showing humility reminds everyone of their shared humanity and common goals.  Employees aren’t perfect and neither are bosses.
  2. “Engage in dialogue, not debates. Another way to practice humility is to truly engage with and accept different points of view. Too often leaders are focused on swaying others and winning arguments. These types of debates become so focused on proving the validity of their own views that they miss out on the opportunity to learn about other points of view.”[6]In Prime and Salib’s opinion, humble leaders are willing to suspend their own agendas and beliefs, not only enhancing their own learning but validating their followers’ unique perspectives.  The best leaders are those who, with humility, will first ask for and then actually listen to the opinion of another and consider what that person brings to the table.
  3. “Embrace uncertainty. Ambiguity and uncertainty are par for the course in today’s business environment. When leaders humbly admit that they don’t have all the answers, they create space for others to step forward and offer solutions. They also engender a sense of interdependence.”[7]Those who have studied leadership traits believe that leaders who are willing to also be followers understand that teams that rely on one other to work through complex, ill-defined problems and are usually more successful.  Their humility enables them to admit ignorance and helps them become smarter.  Humble leaders will ask a lot of questions.  The most humble leader might even ask for new advances to be explained to him as if he was a five year-old.  A willingness to admit that they don’t know it all opens a path to greater enlightenment, and that makes them better leaders.
  4. “Model being a follower. Modest leaders empower others to lead.  By reversing roles, leaders not only facilitate employees’ development but they model the act of taking a different perspective.”[8]

    By being unassuming enough to relinquish power, a humble leader actually helps staff to develop and grow and allows an organization to benefit from different management perspectives and approaches.  A willingness to lower one’s status and relinquish control demonstrates a high level of confidence and strength in a leader.  It demonstrates trust and that is the kind of leader that people happily follow.
  5. “Trust Employees to do their Jobs. According to an article in Fast Company’s Hit the Ground Running blog, “Micromanaging is very bad for morale.   Humble managers choose good people, train them, then get out of the way and let them do their jobs.”[9] Only a humble leader can admit that his way isn’t the only way and allows others’ strengths to work for the good of the team or organization without interference.

If we look around us, how many truly humble people do we see in today’s workplaces?  There is a lot of false-modesty and a lot of disingenuous behavior that tries to pass for genuine humility.   To find the truly unassuming, look for those who are open to others’ opinions, willingly relinquish control, trust others to do their jobs well, admit to mistakes and concede that they don’t have all the answers.  Those are the genuinely humble, and those are the people to hire, keep and promote.

Quote of the Week

“People with humility do not think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less.” Ken Blanchard, One Minute Manager

[2] 2017., Humility.

[3] May 12, 2014, By Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, “The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders,” Harvard Business Review,

[4] January 26, 2013.  By Schumpeter Blog, Davos Man and His Defects. The Economist.

[5] May 12, 2014, By Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, ibid.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] 8-11-14, By Hit the Ground Running blog.  “Six Ways Humility Can Make You A Better Leader.”  Fast Company,

© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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