Humility is one trait shared by many great and successful leaders and is one the Peak Dynamic’s ‘High-Performance Leadership and Success’ traits that we teach and practice.

Humility is not often the first thing that comes to mind when we think of a leader and success.

Too often humility is viewed as being “weak”, but is something many great leaders possess. While some people may think of humility and being humble as traits that reflect weakness and lowliness, research shows it is a virtue that helps leaders be more effective and powerful in their efforts.

Peak Dynamics works in many different sectors from the corporate world, to the sports world, family business and family office community, with extreme adventurers, the emergency services and with elite military units on their leadership skills and have seen the importance of humility first hand.

For instance, it is widely acknowledged that one of the vital attributes of the Special Air Service Regiment is their humility. Humility is in fact, stated as one of the four fundamental pillars of attitude around which that regiment builds their entire ethos:

  • Humility
  • Discipline
  • Humour
  • The Unrelenting Pursuit of Excellence.

For the SAS, an absolute commitment to the mission and a belief in its importance above all else is critical for its accomplishment. Placing natural wants, needs and opinions aside to focus on the single aim of achieving the objective requires both grit and self-less humility.

We could all learn from this.

What is humility?

Andrew Morris and his colleagues defined humility as “a personal orientation founded on a willingness to see the self accurately and a propensity to put oneself in perspective.”

This means that those who practice humility have an accurate perception of their strengths and weaknesses are open to new ideas and ways of thinking. They can view themselves, and their thoughts and ideas, from the other perspectives.

Do not misinterpret humility

It is important not to misunderstand humility. There are definitions out there that describe it as a ‘low self-regard’; ‘the quality of having a modest or low view of one's importance

modest opinion or estimate of one's importance, rank, etc.’.

Humility is a virtue

Humility, in various interpretations, is widely seen as a virtue which centres on low self-preoccupation. It contrasts completely with narcissism, hubris and other forms of pride and is an idealistic and rare intrinsic construct that has an extrinsic side. Research shows that individuals with high levels of narcissistic personality traits, (defined as “extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s talents and a craving for admiration) were likely to have low levels of humility. Sadly, too many leaders exhibit the psychopathic narcissism that can focus on their own personal glory. This is especially true in the financial services industry.

Humble leaders are effective and respected

Those with high levels of humility were found to have behaviours that help individuals to be effective and respected leaders. Higher levels of a leader’s humility were predictive of increased supportiveness towards others, the use of power to achieve shared goals (rather than the personal goals of the leader), and the encouragement of the participation of others in leadership and decision-making.

Research also finds that leaders with high levels of humility are more likely to use their power for the benefit of everyone involved (rather than just for themselves) and that they encourage the involvement of others in decision-making. While these traits would help any group being led by a person practising humble leadership, the value of this type of leader has been identified correctly in business. This makes it a valuable skill for those entering the workforce and hoping to be in positions of leadership.

Jim Collins, the well-known author of “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t” demonstrated this through his research into corporate leadership that the type of business leader most able to take their company from “good to great” were those leaders who build “enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus personal will.” He refers to this type of leadership, interestingly, as “Level 5 Leadership.” Level 5 leaders are those who are driven to achieve the goals of an organisation or group and do so in a manner that serves and engages others.

Humility and Sport

All of the above is relevant for a leader of a team sport. Quite often you will not see so much humility in a lone sportsperson, such as a skier, golfer, or boxer for instance. However, humility is still needed by them. Why? They will need to show some humility to the support team and coaches around them.

In Sam Walker’s well-researched book - The Captain Class on what made the top sporting teams world class for a consistent number of years, one of the factors was humility. Rarely was the captain of one of these teams a star and nor did they act like it. They shunned attention. They gravitated to functional roles. They carried the water!

Brazil and Pele

For instance the Brazil football team between 1958 – 1970, even with its abundance of talent, still relied on the work of water carriers as captains. Sam Walker could not work out how this team had managed to win three World Cups within twelve years without ever using the captain twice. In all three cases, he found that when the team selected a new leader, it had never given the job to the best soccer player in history – Pele.

The Best Sports Captains

The best captains of some of the greatest sports teams have lowered themselves in relation to the group whenever possible in order to earn the moral authority to drive the team forward in tough moments.  Such names as Didier Deschamps (he was only the second captain in the history of football to have lifted the Champions League trophy, the World Cup trophy for France, and the European Championship trophy, currently the coach of the French National Team), Syd Coventry (A born leader, he captained the Australian Rules team Magpies from 1927 until he moved to Footscray as coach at the end of the 1934 season. He thus enjoyed the unique privilege of captaining four successive VFL premiership teams. Coventry to this day remains the only Premiership Captain to win a Brownlow in the same year), Valeri Vasiliev, Buck Shelford, Carla Overbeck (US National Soccer Team - 1996-99, Overbeck’s playing accomplishments include competing for the United States National Team. Overbeck was an instrumental player for the U.S. in winning the 1991 Women’s World Cup in China. She captained the 1995 U.S. World Cup squad that advanced to the semifinals and also served as captain of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team that won the gold medal. In 1998, Overbeck competed on the gold-medal-winning Goodwill Games squad. She again captained Team USA to the 1999 World Cup Championship and to a silver medal in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia) and Carles Puyol (In 2014, Barcelona bid farewell to Puyol, after a fifteen-year career in the first team (ten as captain) that brought him 21 titles). I bet you have never even heard of some of them(that is humility) and yet they lead winning teams for many years. 

‘The easiest way to lead is to serve’, to quote Sam Walker. Interestingly, the motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK, the elite training centre for British Army Officers is ‘Serve to Lead’.

How do you develop humility?

Listed below are six specific ways to practice humble leadership that can help individuals contribute to the success of organisations, teams and other groups they serve:

Humble leaders provide clear direction and focus.

By accurately understanding their own “capabilities, values, commitments and personal mission,” humble leaders have a solid foundation upon which to base their direction of actions.

Humble leaders are curious and open to constant learning and improvement.

Humble leaders seek the opinions and perspectives of others as part of their efforts to improve their own understanding. They recognise that other people have knowledge that they do not possess, and they seek that knowledge out. As humble leaders are primarily motivated by the achievement of outcomes desired by the group, team or organisation they lead, rather than their own success, they seek to continually improve their knowledge and abilities to maximise their contributions to the group.

Humble leaders acknowledge their personal limitations. 

Everyone has personal limitations that change over time and are specific to situations. After developing an understanding of their own limitations, humble leaders can come up with ways to limit the potential negative impact of those limitations in order to ensure that they do not limit the capacity of the group or organisation.

Humble leaders accept responsibility and share credit for achievements. 

Humble leaders recognise that other people always contribute to successful outcomes and they are quick to acknowledge those contributions. Humble leaders hold themselves accountable for their own actions and take responsibility for the part that they play when things go right, and more, perhaps more importantly, when they do not.

Humble leaders both serve and empower others. 

According to research “humility recognises that effective outcomes are best achieved when people are empowered, when systems are in place that eliminate barriers to success, and when resources are provided that enable others to succeed.” Humble leaders know other people may be better at some things that they are, and by empowering them to share their knowledge and skills, they draw out resources from others that get the job done. Successful collaboration with others rests on shared trust and commitment. Understanding and meeting other people’s needs are what earns the trust of others and demonstrates a commitment to helping others be successful.

Humble leaders have “an integrated sense of ethical awareness,”

Leaders are expected to demonstrate ethical conduct and choices by those they lead and serve. Understanding the complex set of ethical duties that exists between the leader-follower relationship and acting accordingly maintains the trust and respect of those whom the leader serves.

Bringing humility into your leadership style will ensure everyone in your group, team or organisation is treated fairly and with respect, and that the group has a much better chance of achieving its shared goals. When you as a leader use this approach to their work, you can help to ensure that everyone wins!

If you would like to learn more about Peak Dynamics’ Leadership Development programme, please contact us.

Photo: Carlos Puyol