Humility – A Leadership Attribute Throughout the Ages


One of the most difficult challenges for any leader is to remain humble in light of the success that the leader has achieved.  Our business success inevitably leads to greater self-confidence, especially as we inevitably over-estimate our personal role in that business success.  As Bill Gates said well:

Success is a lousy teacher.  It seduces smart people into thinking they cannot lose.


What is Humility?

Humility is the personal honesty that you, as the leader, do not know everything and do not have all the answers.  Humility enables you to question people’s flattery, to admit your mistakes and weaknesses, and to be more open to other’s opinions and challenges to your viewpoints.  It is certainly not a coincidence that in Good to Great, Jim Collins identifies the characteristics of the best leaders as possessing:

A paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.


Humility and Ego

In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith defines 21 weaknesses in leadership behavior that he characterizes as “stupid things top leaders do that they need to stop doing now.”  The root cause of virtually all of these behaviors is the ego of the leader:

1.  The ego that tells the leader that he knows everything and is always right.  As Yogi Berra said:

There are some people who, if they don’t already know, you can’t tell them.

2.  The ego that tells the leader that she is better than the others who are subordinate. 

3.  The ego that tells the leader that he does not need to play by the roles.

Through these behaviors leaders have let their ego prevail and lost their humility.  By contrast, successful business leaders have great self-confidence, but they retain their humility and honesty as they realize that while talented and hard-working, they are not perfect, have been greatly aided by others, and (yes) have just been plain lucky. 


Humility Across the Ages

This question of humility has been a leadership issue for millennia: 

Ancient China:  “The great leader speaks little.  He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.  When all is finished, the people say: ‘we did it ourselves.’”  Lao-Tzu


Ancient Greece:  The Ancient Greeks had a word for the loss of humility and the triumph of the ego: hubris.  Hubris is the outrageous arrogance where a person in power overestimates his or her own competence and capabilities, gradually loses touch with reality, and (in Greek tragedies) succumbs to a tragic fall.

Ancient Rome:  “To conquer one’s spirit, abandon anger, and be modest in victory… whoever can do this I compare not to the greatest of men but to a god.”  Cicero

Mongol World around 1200:  “The key to leadership is self-control: primarily, the mastery of pride, which is more difficult to subdue than a wild lion.”  Genghis Khan 

Louis XIV France: “Louis’s greatest gift was to maintain his quality of common sense in the midst of constant flattery.  Throughout, the king demanded respect and obedience, not flattery.”  Louis XIV biographer, Olivier Bernier 

18th  Century Austria: To keep herself humble and ensure that she did what was right and best for the Austria-Hungarian Empire, the Archduchess Maria Teresa employed one advisor as her official critic.  It was the formal job of Emmanuel Count Sylva-Tarouca to tell Maria Teresa all of her mistakes.

20th Century America: “To possess self-confidence and humility at the same time is called maturity.”  Jack Welch




As a leader, your success comes about from the success of others.  Maintaining humility allows you to better keep your focus where it needs to be, directed outward towards your team and your customers.  As Ken Blanchard said:

People with humility do not think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less.




About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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