The loss of humility among leaders across organizations should not be surprising. We encourage and reward self-aggrandizement and frown on those who are less self-promoting, and have removed humility from leadership curricula.
Military training used to include lessons—direct or disguised—focused on developing humility; Chief Petty Officer Initiation was a great example. More recently we’ve allowed political correctness and confusion between humility and humiliation to erode these valuable lessons. We do so at our own peril, creating a dearth of true humility in spite of its appeal and benefits.
Research by leadership expert and author Dr. Rich Schuttler—a former Navy chief petty officer and retired limited duty officer—has found that “humble” is one of the ten most common attributes individuals associate with effective leaders. People are drawn to humble personalities, especially among leaders. Humility conveys honesty and integrity, and makes one approachable. These characteristics are vital to leading others because they help build the confidence of peers and subordinates, thereby developing trust throughout the chain-of-command.
Still, many American subcultures associate arrogance with strength. In reality, sincere humility is the truer sign of strength. The leader who can be self-deprecating, who can cast the light off themselves and onto others, and who can make juniors feel respected, has the strength of character and confidence to be truly effective. Many leaders understand this and try to fake it. Doing so is a mistake. Pretending to be humble is worse than not being so and followers are too astute to fall for it.
Leaders are well served by staying humble regardless of position; the option is to be humbled, usually by a senior or in the press. One way leaders can remain (or become) humble is to consider the accomplishments of their predecessors and contemporaries. No matter how significant one’s personal achievements, there is always someone who has done more.
The words of my uncle, a World War II carrier fighter pilot, in his self-published memoir The Journal of a Lifetime , are enlightening. He may not be a national war hero, but his combat service was nonetheless courageous and contributed directly to success in several Pacific battles. Regardless of any personal risk, hardship, or aerial achievements, former Lieutenant (junior grade) George Pleat summarized his service humbly, his closing sentence reflecting the humility of a true leader:
One last comment, a sincere one at that: No matter what . . . accomplishments I may have experienced in the Naval Service, there were so many others that did more, suffered more and gave up more that my contributions shrink in comparison.
Regardless of rank, position, or achievement, we should all be able to name someone whose accomplishments and sacrifices exceed our own. If anyone is unable to identify at least one person meeting these criteria, it should be a cause for great personal reflection because it demonstrates a sincere lack of humility.
As quoted in Everyday Leader Heroes , “genuinely humble leaders build winning teams by encouraging trust and confidence.” The opposite is equally true. Being humbled is character-building and better experienced in a training scenario than through failure. Eliminating focus on humility in leadership development is a mistake and contributes to many leaders’ headline-grabbing failures.