10 ways to lead with humility

There are endless requirements of a leader, but one we rarely see on their job description is ‘must be able to lead with humility’, despite it being one of the strongest influencers on an organization’s culture.

Pope Francis believes that humility is one of the most empowering leadership qualities, stating in his book ‘Lead With Humility’, “If we can develop a truly humble attitude, we can change the world”.

When your own sense of self importance is reduced, there is space for everyone else to have importance too – and when people feel like they matter, they shine.

Therefore it is critical as leaders, that we keep an eye on our humility. In this article you’ll discover 10 ways that we can lead with humility. 

The workplace can be a battle ground

In the modern day workplace there are endless provocations to ‘fight’ for an outcome, ‘defend’ your intellectual viewpoint, justify an action taken, ‘hustle’ to beat competitors, compete over limited resources to achieve KPIs and to maintain one’s sense of power and dignity in the often endless barrage of internal political power-struggles and personality clashes. 

Some days you feel like you are part of a winning machine that is sailing effortlessly towards a postcard sunset. However the trap is that in these times of professional prosperity, we risk losing our humility by bragging of our success, or the onset of complacency and arrogance. 

Then there are other days, when you flump in front of your couch at the end of a long week feeling like some of your colleagues have been assigned a do-or-die mission by MI5 to sabotage and derail you by any means possible.

It is these days especially that leaders face the challenge of maintaining their humility as the temptation to defend yourself, assert your authority and do ‘what’s best for you’ to survive, can often drown the higher self, along with the ship you’re sailing.

Having humility is not a skill that we can learn. As a noun, it is instead something that we must become – it is a way of being.

Who is the leader without humility?

Before we look at what leading with humility is, here are some examples of what it isn’t.

  • They are ‘proud’ and fiercely defend their pride
  • They are arrogant, egotistical and pretentious
  • They focus on the failings, weaknesses and shortcomings of those around them
  • They won’t admit their own weaknesses or shortcomings
  • They are defensive
  • They fight for their viewpoint, convinced that they are right and everyone else is wrong
  • They have an inability to use the word ‘sorry’
  • If anyone disagrees with them, they become hostile, irritable and negative
  • They generally have a negative outlook and complain a lot
  • They see problems and challenges as things to complain about or give to other people to fix, instead of seeing them as opportunities for advancement
  • They would be highly insulted and angry at the suggestion of participating in personal or professional development
  • They see themselves as ‘above’ certain daily tasks within the organization – eg you would never see them cleaning, litter picking, washing the dishes in the staff kitchen, manning a company stand at an expo, answering the main call line or escorting visitors to a colleague’s office.
  • They don’t do volunteer work, or participate in anything work related outside of their duty statement and contracted hours
  • They rarely say thank you or deliver praise for what has been done, but instead deliver criticism on what hasn’t been done.

Now of course dear fellow leader, none of these apply to you, right?!  

Our first step to having humility is accepting that it would be almost impossible for any of us to say that we have never been guilty of any of the above. 

Even if we did not commit any of the above acts of egotism with any conscious intent, if those we lead perceive (that is, interpret their own reality as to having had an egotistical experience of you), then you are still guilty.

10 ways to lead with humility

With all that in mind, here are 10 ways you can lead with humility.

1) Share the power

Having a formal leadership position does not make us better or more important than anyone else – in fact there is nothing that makes any single human being better than another. 

Respect is not something that we are automatically issued with or entitled to on the signing of our leadership employment contracts – everyone deserves equal respect and dignity.

Having a leadership role only gives you special ‘power’ that others don’t have, in the sense that you essentially have the pre-approved authority to sign some forms, and the joyful responsibility of going to jail on behalf of your organization if ‘it all goes wrong’. 

Our role is not about being better or more powerful than anyone else, but about using the authority our position has, to give everyone else genuine empowerment.

We can share our ‘power’ further by removing all ‘secrets’ from the organizational operations too. If ‘knowledge is power’ then it must be distributed.

Do your middle management or ground-floor supervisors have knowledge of your annual budget?  

Do they know the details of your strategic plan, KPIs and objectives for the year?  

Do they know what partnerships, products or services you are developing?  

I have found from my own experience, that the more you give away, the more you get back.

With the obvious considerations of proprietary information and confidentiality, sharing information does the opposite of deducing your power.

2) Think and act on behalf of others instead of yourself

Having humility demands that we put our self-importance and pride aside, to quieten our egos and do the opposite of what our survival instinct forces us to do innately – look after ourselves.

CS Lewis said that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less”. 

But in the modern day workplace, especially in leadership where your actions and competence is forever being judged by everyone, the thought of this can make leaders’ feel very vulnerable.

To have humility requires the highest level of self-confidence, as it requires us to put aside our own needs and instead only do what is best for others.

3) Give away the credit

Gifting the credit of achievements to others for something that you put hard graft into getting done in your organization is often seen as the ultimate injustice or ‘sacrifice’ by the less humble.

However, those with humility know that there is absolutely nothing worthy of celebration that can possibly be achieved alone, and that ultimately, the success of the organization is always a reflection of – and a credit to you – whether you get any overt praise for it or not.

Everyone has within them an abundance of unique qualities, skills, experiences, virtues and gifts and it is our job as leaders to always be on the look-out for these in action, and to celebrate and appraise them as they arise. 

4) Graciously recognize and acknowledge your mistakes and areas for improvement

A truly honorable, humble and courageous act of leadership is to acknowledge your errors. Showing those above and below you that you have the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to graciously admit the times where you acted hastily instead of thoughtfully, responded out of emotion instead of reason, given misinformation, passed a poor judgement or simply have areas that could be improved upon, is one of the most rapid ways to create an environment where everyone feels safe to make mistakes, to continue to find ways to grow and to show them that you too are a human being.

Those who do not have humility, fear that admitting their weaknesses, failings, professional development needs or areas for improvement will somehow detract from their position of power or authority. Showing your humanness, is showing humility.

Making mistakes can also be a good thing! In the book ‘59 Seconds’ Richard Wiseman claims that mistakes made by people of aptitude makes them endearing and more relatable.

5) Silence your own opinions to give a voice to others

This is extremely challenging in world where at some time or another we are provoked to defend our character, decisions, skill set or integrity. This is all about putting the ego aside – that part of us which is designed for survival.

Accepting other people’s opinions and resisting the burning desire to say your piece (particularly when you have been criticized) is not being submissive or weak. It’s an act of humility.

Some leaders refuse to listen to the opinions of others as if accepting them somehow minimizes their credibility or authority. 

Being a leader with humility means being constantly open to the fact that we might be wrong. Our staff are the ones on the frontline in their respective departments each day, and so we cannot possibly always have the best insight into the issues they face and what the most ideal solutions might be. If we want to improve the organizations that we lead, we need to be able to accept that those around us may just have the better ideas.

Best-selling author Mark Manson says that if you want to see positive change “you must be willing to ask yourself whether you are wrong time and time again”.

6) Ask how you can help

A big misconception that many have about leadership, is that the leader’s primary role is to dish out instructions and requests to the team. But there truly can be no humility found in a leader who places herself above those who she is being paid to serve.

I believe that as leaders, our role is to help those we lead to do their life’s best work and to create an environment, equipped with the appropriate resources with which to do that.

Servant leadership is a philosophy of leadership which encourages the leader to share their power for the greater good of the organization and the people that form part of it; and we could all help more and ‘tell’ less as leaders. 

Pope Francis says “The one who rules must be like a servant. If you change your view of your role as a leader – from one who gives orders to members of your team to one who serves your reports – you open up opportunities that did not exist before”.

7) Believe that everyone is inherently good and trust in others completely

The leader less actualized will believe that people should not be trusted until they have earned it. 

However, I believe that the leaders who build the most effective teams and the strongest cultures of collegiality, are the ones who trust completely without question, and continue to give everyone the benefit of the doubt until they unquestionably prove to have a meditated malicious intent. 

Anyone who is mentally healthy and emotionally stable would never intend to be cruel, disruptive or bad. 

Despite the fact that it can be hard to embrace this when we are faced with ever challenging colleagues, tough personalities and exhausting repetitive patterns of ineffective behavior from staff, it is important for us to remember as leaders that everyone is inherently good, but that they may need our help to overcome their adopted (often protective) behaviors. 

8) Accept the organization’s faults as your own

You may not be the CFO who cut the budget in half, or the Board Director that signed off on 40 redundancies, or the legal director who implemented the excruciating procurement policy – but as a leader, you ARE the representation of those people, their departments and the decisions that they made for the best interests of the organization. 

Leaders who complain about ‘the system’ are not leaders. They are poison – and the problem.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, we must ‘be the change we wish to see in the world’. 

When we take on a leadership role in an organization, we take on everything that comes with it. We become the representation of the organization. We don’t get to select the parts we want to be leaders of (the fun, rewarding and easy bits) and reject the bits we don’t like or are ‘too hard’. 

Although we can never change everything about an organization we are employed by – or even one that we own (such as legislation, law, client requirements etc), we can change our attitude to the elements that frustrate us and find better ways of working with them, rather than in rebellion towards them. 

As soon as we act as an enemy of the system by engaging in negative talk of the faults of the system, we switch from a leader of growth and development to a leader of an anti-establishment movement.

If the leader takes a position of helpless victim and critic of the system in which it operates, how can she expect her staff to adopt a positive, motivated and proactive attitude to finding opportunities for improvement?  

Just like Mumma used to say, ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. This doesn’t mean passively accepting dreadful practices, or putting up with inefficiencies. The point is, that you can be an assertive and change-creating leader, without being aggressive, negative and poisonous to the culture. 

9) Assess, evaluate, and review, but never judge

Staff depend on us for feedback and depend on us to deliver it without prejudice or judgement. Our staff shouldn’t have to wait for the formalities of an annual performance appraisal to find out whether they are on the right track, or that their output is way off course – they should have constant feedback to allow them to iterate and grow along the way.

Having humility doesn’t’ mean agreeing with everything or ignoring things that need to be addressed; but it does mean delivering feedback constructively and sticking only to the facts.

10) Balance personal and professional

Don’t forget to be a human. Socialize with your team, let them see that you are the same as them, have the same problems, enjoy the same pleasures and want the same things for your family as they do for theirs. Organize social events, team morning teas, staff family events, share your real and raw story of how you got to your position.

Yes, we have a certain level of professionalism to uphold at all times, however, that doesn’t mean ceasing to be an authentic human being.

In every conversation, email, letter, request and in-person interaction, we have the opportunity to either lead with grace and humility – engendering trust and empowerment in our workplace; or to allow our pride and ego to take control and subsequently annihilate our leadership future.

Humility does not demand perfection, it encourages us to have no fear of our imperfection and to not judge that of others. 

Whilst some will argue that the way of the humble leader is a sign of a weak leader, I cannot find reason to doubt that the maximum potential of a leader’s influence, derives from her ability to live and work in humility.

I certainly cannot claim to embody this way of being in my every-moment practice as a leader – there are many times that I have failed. However, at my very core I try my absolute best, and that’s all you can do too.

A post-graduate qualified in teacher training and curriculum design, Sarah Cordiner has created a suite of online courses tailored specifically for online course creators.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema