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What exactly is humble leadership

Part 2 of the Series: The humble and powerful leader
When you look at the term "humility," you realize how many different meanings people attach to it. For some, humility has to do with understanding that there is something greater than oneself. For others, humility actually has to do with being feeble and submissive. For some, humility means putting your own accomplishments into perspective; for others, it means hiding your own light under a bushel and being overly modest.

What happens to you when you read or hear the word "humility"? Does it have a positive connotation? A negative one? Is it associated with strength or with weakness? With yourself, or just with others? With religion or with philosophy?

Semantically, humility comes from the Latin word "humus" which means "earth". So it has some elements of being both grounded as well as being low and lowly.

In other languages the semantics point in similar as well as in different directions. In German, the word is a combination of serving and courage (Demut). The Dutch call humility ‘Nederigheid’, which is close to lowliness. The Finns use Nöyryys which to them has associations of prostrating yourself before kings and queens. The Slavic languages go more for modesty (Скромность/skromnost – Russian), submitting oneself to the will of God (Смирение/smirenie – Russian again) or putting yourself below someone (pokora – Polish).

In Turkish the word is alçakgönüllülük, consisting of alçak and gönül. Alçak means low – also as in a plane flying low, gönul means soul or character. In Hindi the word for humility is विनम्रता vinamrata, which has to do with bending down.

So many different words with many different associations.

The history of the concept humility

Therefore, let me go beyond semantics to review the history of the concept of humility.

First, we begin with the Chinese. For them, humility was nothing more than moderation, prudence and good conduct. 600 years before Christ, the philosopher Lao Tzu wrote politically astute on the subject:

"Why does the sea lead the streams, the streams the rivers, the rivers the springs? Because they are lower than those. Therefore, in order to be above the people, one must place oneself below them. To be ahead of the people, one must be behind them. Therefore, the wise man is exalted without oppressing the people, leading without harming the people."

Then, some 300 years later, the philosopher Xunzi emphasized that a successful leader should be "strong, but not brutal; humble, but not inferior."

In other words, already amongst the Chinese, humility was not about being weak or hiding one's light under a bushel, but about assessing oneself correctly, not leading autocratically, but finding a way to serve the greater cause - in this case, the people.

Moving forward to the Greeks. It was clear to them that humility was not about weakness or obedience to authority, but about seeing yourself in all of your facets. Even with one's own strengths. Admittedly, the sentence "Know thyself," which had been inscribed on the columns of the temple of Apollo in Delphi since about 450 B.C., was initially intended to help us recognize our limitations, i.e., our weaknesses. However, this changed from about Plato onwards, who emphasized the importance and possibility of human development. We can and should build on what we have in the present moment. That is, as a human being, I should not only recognize what I lack and work on that, but also perceive what it is that I already have now, what it is that I can already do.

Therefore, the core element of humility became the alert and wise perception of what really is. And never to be deceived. By oneself or by others.

Plato's contemporary Xenophon went one step further. He saw humility as a core virtue that is necessary to make all other virtues shine. He uses the example of a warhorse whose power and strength only comes to the fore when it is under control.  Under the control of humility. Man is seen as no different in this respect. Without humility, all other virtues are not worth much.

Aristotle rounds it all off with the principle of moderation. It is always better to avoid extremes and to take a middle position.  That is, no excessive self-confidence, but also no inferiority, no over-strong ego, but also not too weak an ego. In the middle, in the centre lies humility.

Buddhism considers humility to be a necessary condition for enlightenment: I have to recognize my own self, my own ego, in order to be able to let go of it.

Humility turned into the negative

It was only the monotheistic religions that ended up placing humility in relation with a strong authority.  Before that, humility was about the human being, about the people; now humility was about the relationship to God and to the religious institutions organizing the relationship with God.

The new dictate: Man should accept his lower and inferior position before God and submit to Him and any structures serving him. Under no circumstances should he rebel or think too much of himself. Independent thinking, or even courage was not emphasized at first much in any of the faiths. To be courageous against God, to represent man in his strengths before himself, God or the church was absolutely no focus.

And consequently, it comes as no surprise that philosophers like Nietzsche condemned the concept of humility. He reviled humility as slave morality for a writhing worm.  Humility, he said, is "one of those dangerous, slanderous ideals behind which cowardice and weakness, and therefore submission to God, lie hidden."  It was time for the Übermensch to come – that would spell the end of useless humility.

This condemnation has been adopted by other thinkers who see humility as "making oneself small" and also see something sycophantic in it. Do you remember Uriah Heep from "David Copperfield" by Charles Dickens? This Uriah Heep insists that he is humble - "very 'umble, sir" and yet he is just a disgusting character who parades humility like a great shield behind which he can do evil things.

The image of humility changes again 

In recent decades, however, the image of humility has changed considerably and rediscovered its power. Today, humility has again something to do with a sense of proportion, self-knowledge and self-worth. The positive elements of the English word come to the fore: Being grounded. When are you grounded? When you do not believe yourself to be greater than you really are. But you also do not need to turn yourself into mud!

American philosophy professor Robert Solomon compares humility to a speech at a film awards ceremony. Arrogance and false pride should be avoided. But self-mortification is also wrong, he says. "Humility need not be pathetic; it is often no more than a realistic assessment of one's own contribution and the recognition of the contribution of others."

British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees humility as an appreciation of oneself, one's talents, abilities and virtues. Likewise, as an appreciation of others, as well as an openness to the world.

Humility and Management

And that brings us to the topic of management and humility. Since about 2011, researchers have fine-tuned the definition and more or less agreed on the following elements of humility. Humility is shown by the one who:

  1. Is willing to assess the self accurately. This applies to weaknesses as well as strengths. Who is also willing to show strengths and weaknesses where it makes sense for the bigger picture (not for their own ego)
  2. Openly shows appreciation for the strengths and contributions of others
  3. Is always open and willing to learn
  4. Understands that he or she is only a small part of a larger whole. Who knows about being finite, easily replaceable and is aware that circumstances and luck always play a huge role.

Now the question for you: do you buy this definition of humility? Can you live with it?

In my research, I asked hundreds of executives what their understanding of humility was. If you look at the word clouds that come out of these statements, the researchers' definition tally well with what leaders see in humility, once they spend some time reflecting. It is about strengths, weaknesses, respect, seeing eye to eye, being open, grasping the bigger picture, being accepting as well as driven to appreciating others.

So this will be the definition we will work with. One of the managers I interviewed sums it up as follows:

"The other day someone said about an actor: He takes the audience seriously and sees himself as not especially important. For the humble manager that means: They take employees, competitors and customers very seriously and do not see themselves as especially important."

What a fine summary of a fine concept and a fine word: Humility.

I wish you humble days.