What does it mean to be humble? And is there a “right” amount of humility to display?
When we meet someone with no or a little humility, they immediately appear to us as arrogant, full of themselves, and it is almost repulsive. We don’t want to stay around these people bragging all day long about their success.
On the contrary, people with a lot of humility can be perceived as weak, having low self-esteem and lacking confidence. Worse, if they are doing well for themselves, we could see it as false modesty, as faking humility.
This balancing act is an exercise I recently faced with the publication of my book.
On one side, I know the efforts, time and money I invested in making this project a reality. I recently started signing and shipping pre-ordered books, which feels almost unreal. It’s an achievement I want to celebrate and share with everyone.
It doesn’t feel humble to talk about this, yet I don’t want to downplay this important milestone. If I did, I would not feel authentic.
It’s normal to be joyful and proud of our accomplishments.
We should not diminish them. Nor amplify and twist them to make us look better than we truly are.
As Isaac Newton said, I know that I stand on the shoulders of giants.
To write this book on overthinking, I had to read and understand the work of so many incredible people. I was also blessed to have so many individuals sharing their thoughts and situations during interviews. Professionals helped me in all aspects of the book concept. My family and close friends supported me.
I could have never done it without all of them.
Remembering this is humbling and, at the same time, motivating. They helped me build my conviction to authentically say, “I’m an author now”. And it leads me to the conclusion that when we are trying to find the “right” amount of humility, we should balance it with authenticity.
Too much humility, with too little authenticity, will feel like faking.
Too little humility, with too much authenticity, will feel like bragging.
In his book, Good To Great, professor Jim Collins explains how some businesses went from invisible to invincible. One of the core elements of their success was linked to their leaders, who all had two unique attributes — they were humble and had an indomitable will.
We can see their conviction as an expression of their authenticity. As they mixed both traits, they were able to rise to the highest level of leadership, elevating and inspiring others.
However, this concept doesn’t only apply to CEOs or orchestra conductors. We can all benefit and leverage it. We can all lead. In our family, among our friends, with our colleagues.
We are all leaders.
Authenticity comes from knowing about ourselves, about our strengths and weaknesses and being open about them. In comparison, humility comes from how we think about ourselves. It is all about the management of the ego.
A great contemporary example is the current Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte.
Although this is part of the Dutch culture, with their saying “doe maar gewoon”, meaning “just be normal”, Rutte leads by example.
Once, Rutte was caught spilling his coffee on the Ministry of Health’s floor while on his way to a meeting. Rather than leaving the scene to be on time for his appointment or waiting for someone else to clean, he grabbed a mop nearby and did it himself.
Similarly, Rutte pays for all his coffees, bikes to work, and waits in line with everyone else, which shows he doesn’t think he is above others and showcases his humility.
However, being humble doesn’t hinder him.
When meeting with Donald Trump at the White House, he vividly contradicted his interlocutor on a trade agreement. Many consider the position of US President to make you the most powerful person in the world, but Rutte didn’t flinch. True to himself, he voiced his opinion.
Great leaders know how to blend humility and authenticity.
Psychologist Adam Grant suggested a few questions to test candidates’ humility during job interviews. One of them is “Whom do you owe your success to?”
Grant explains that we could spot the lack of authenticity in a humble answer when the respondent is focused on impressing and kissing up. Additionally, it will be self-centred, with excessive use of the pronouns “I” and “me”.
So, to challenge ourselves to be more authentic and humble leaders, let’s turn the attention to others. To do this, we can focus on the use of our pronouns and attempt to use “you”, “they”, and “them” more than “I” and “me”.
Like author Richard Warren said,
“true humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
PS: I am organising a virtual book launch with behavioural science games and some free copies of my book to win. If you are interested, register using this link => https://bit.ly/onlinebooklaunchlison
- Collins Jim, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (HarperBusiness, 2001)
- Taylor Adam, “After mopping up spilled coffee, Dutch leader Mark Ruttebecomes a symbol of etiquette”, The Washington Post (2018), accessed April 2022.
- Erdbrink Thomas, “Playing by the Rules: Dutch Leader Offers a Sober Contrast in a Brash Era”, The New York Times (2020), accessed April 2022.
- Stillman Jessica, “Humility Is an Undersung Leadership Skill. Adam Grant Says These 2 Interview Questions Screen for It”, Inc.com (2021), accessed April 2022.