Humility

The Most Beautiful Word in the English Language

© iStockphoto/OGphoto

Many years ago, one of my university professors mentioned that "windowsill" was voted the most beautiful word in the English language. Being an armchair linguist, this factoid naturally stayed with me.

Words have enormous power. They can make us erupt into laughter or bring tears to our eyes. They can influence, inspire, manipulate and shock. They can build and destroy.

Some words have different effects on different people. One such word is humility. It is one of those words that are seldom in neutral gear. Some, like me, love the word and all it stands for. Some almost fear it and interpret it synonymously with lack of self-confidence or timidity.

The dictionary defines humility as modesty, lacking pretence, not believing that you are superior to others. An ancillary definition includes: "Having a lowly opinion of oneself, meekness". The word "humility" first struck me in the context of leadership when Jim Collins mentioned it in his seminal work Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't. In this book, Collins examined companies that went from good to great by sustaining 15-year cumulative stock returns at or below the general stock market, and after a transition point, cumulative returns at least three times the market over the next 15 years.

Among the many characteristics that distinguished these companies from others is that they all had a Level 5 leader  . Level 5 leaders direct their ego away from themselves to the larger goal of leading their company to greatness. These leaders are a complex, paradoxical mix of intense professional will and extreme personal humility. They will create superb results but shun public adulation, and are never boastful. They are described as modest. An example of such a leader who epitomized humility is David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, who, in Jim Collins' words, defined himself as a HP man first and a CEO second. He was a man of the people, practicing management by walking around. Shunning all manner of publicity, Packard is quoted as saying: "You shouldn't gloat about anything you've done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do."

Another great leader is Patrick Daniel, CEO of North American energy and pipeline company Enbridge, who espouses two leadership attributes: determination to create results and humility, shifting the focus away from himself and continually recognizing the contributions of others. "I have learned through the lives of great leaders," he said, "that greatness comes from humility and being at times, self-effacing."

Clearly these leaders, and many others like them, don't espouse the meaning of humility as "meek". On the contrary, it is a source of their strength. But the notion of being self-effacing is one that we struggle with in our competitive culture, prescribing that we take every opportunity to toot our own horn, and that we don't dare leave the house without our dynamic elevator speech all rehearsed.

We often confuse humility with timidity. Humility is not clothing ourselves in an attitude of self-abasement or self-denigration. Humility is all about maintaining our pride about who we are, about our achievements, about our worth – but without arrogance – it is the antithesis of hubris, that excessive, arrogant pride which often leads to the derailment of some corporate heroes, as it does with the downfall of the tragic hero in Greek drama. It's about a quiet confidence without the need for a meretricious selling of our wares. It's about being content to let others discover the layers of our talents without having to boast about them. It's a lack of arrogance, not a lack of aggressiveness in the pursuit of achievement.

An interesting dichotomy is that, often, the higher people rise, the more they have accomplished, the higher the humility index. Those who achieve the most brag the least, and the more secure they are in themselves, the more humble they are. "True merit, like a river, the deeper it is, the less noise it makes". (Edward Frederick Halifax). We have all come across people like that and feel admiration for them.

There is also an understated humility of every day people we work with who have the ability to get the job done without drawing attention to themselves. Witness the employee who is working at his computer into the late hours, purely motivated by a keen sense of duty, the executive assistant who stays after 5:30pm on a Friday night in an empty office to await a courier, or the manager who quietly cancels an important personal event to fly out of town to attend to the company's business. This is akin to the philanthropist who gives an anonymous donation.

Humility is also a meta-virtue. It crosses into an array of principles. For example, we can safely declare that there cannot be authenticity without humility. Why? Because, there is always a time in a leader's journey when one will be in a situation of not having all the answers. Admitting this and seeking others' input requires some humility.

Another mark of a leader who practices humility is his or her treatment of others. Such leaders treat everyone with respect regardless of position. Years ago, I came across this reference: the sign of a gentleman is how he treats those who can be of absolutely no use to him.

Something interesting happens, too, when we approach situations from a perspective of humility: it opens us up to possibilities, as we choose open-mindedness and curiosity over protecting our point of view. We spend more time in that wonderful space of the beginner's mind, willing to learn from what others have to offer. We move away from pushing into allowing, from insecure to secure, from seeking approval to seeking enlightenment. We forget about being perfect and we enjoy being in the moment.

Here are a few suggestions on practicing humility:

  1. There are times when swallowing one's pride is particularly difficult and any intentions of humility fly out the window, as we get engaged in a contest of perfection, each side seeking to look good. If you find yourself in such no-win situations, consider developing some strategies to ensure that the circumstances don't lead you to lose your grace. Try this sometimes: just stop talking and allow the other person to be in the limelight. There is something very liberating in this strategy.
  2. Here are three magical words that will produce more peace of mind than a week at an expensive retreat: "You are right."
  3. Catch yourself if you benignly slip into over preaching or coaching without permission – is zeal to impose your point of view overtaking discretion? Is your correction of others reflective of your own needs?
  4. Seek others' input on how you are showing up in your leadership path. Ask: "How am I doing?" It takes humility to ask such a question. And even more humility to consider the answer.
  5. Encourage the practice of humility in your company through your own example: every time you share credit for successes with others, you reinforce the ethos for your constituents. Consider mentoring or coaching emerging leaders on this key attribute of leadership.

There are many benefits to practicing humility, to being in a state of non-pretence: it improves relationships across all levels, it reduces anxiety, it encourages more openness and paradoxically, it enhances one's self-confidence. It opens a window to a higher self. For me, it replaces "windowsill" as the most beautiful word in the English language.

Copyright © 2006-2014 by Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.

This article is adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is an educator, author, speaker and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd, a company which specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training.  Visit her website at www.increaseyoureq.com

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Comments (10)
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Ciaran, welcome to the forums. It never ceases to amaze me the power that humility has. We need it ourselves and we need to see it in our leaders. The ramifications of not being humble can be very damaging - shelley's decision to leave a company is case in point. You have to wonder how many other people choose to leave an organization for this very same reason.

    As you read this ask yourself what point you are at on a "humility meter". Think about times when humility posed a stumbling block for you. And then think about why it was so hard to be humble. It's not an easy discussion to have with yourself but a very valuable one and one that stands to have a great impact.

    Thanks for the great reminders and for bringing this article back to the forefront.

    Dianna
  • transome wrote Over a month ago
    I am an avid supporter of the 'Emotional Intelligence' school of personal development and the ethos of 'Humility'

    I teach Management at a local college part time and in my class hand outs an article by Collins on Humility( taken from Harvard Business Review) but its origins in his book is always included, it is just so critical to the study and appreciation of 'World Class' Leadership that no class or business/community leader should not have a copy that is read, reread and fully understood!

    Ciaran

    Dublin Feb 2010
  • shelley wrote Over a month ago
    What a great article which hit a soft spot for 2 reasons :

    Lack of humility is one of the many reasons I had for recently deciding to leave the company I built and still own 1/3 because of the total lack of humility in one of my fellow shareholders. The perpetual use of Me, Myself and I, by him in front of teams and in front of clients helped give me that final push I needed to explore other professional paths.

    What's more, I'm in the middle of reading "Good to Great". Definitely a super read
  • Meena wrote Over a month ago
    While on the subject of humility, I'd like to make just a fine distinction between plain humility and allowing onself to be trod upon. We do come across people holding top positions in large companies having the quality of humility notwithstanding their many achievements. At the other end of the scale, we also come across those who are arrogant while not having anything much to show as being good enough reason for it. In a way, humility can be powerful facet of human nature, because it allows you to seek help without feeling emarassed, ask people about things you don't know, so you can gain from the knowledge of others in a positive way. Being arrogant, will of course preclude that possibility, because the arrogance will come in the way of 'exposing your ignorance' as it were. It's the willingness to learn from others that makes a person grow, learning from his own as well as others' experiences and rise above all that is narrow and petty.

    It doesn't make sense, however, to take everything lying down, in the hope that things will eventually sort themselves out, when there are underhand dealings at play. Although it might take courage to do it, there are occasions when you'll need to confront the person and the issues. My guess is that others around you will respect you for it even though there may not be a win or gain for you in the the immediate future. It will help boost your confidence and make you better able to handle the situation the next time around. Cheers!
  • paula wrote Over a month ago
    That was a good article. Some people enojy bragging so much about thier accomplishments that they do not look at what they have done to get them. I know someone who will go out of his way to help a person but then he has to tell everyone what he has done. To me he is just shouting "Look at what a wonderful person I am". I help people but do not brag about it.
    Dazzle, you are most likely not the only person who has been backstabbed by that woman. She might be getting ahead in her career but do people enjoy working with her? I would suggest that you do your job the best you can and share your ideas when you have them and be a person people enjoy working with. I believe that people who treat others wrongly will eventually get it in return. You never know, she may appear successful but she may be miserable.
    Hope this helps.
    Paula
  • PamelaA wrote Over a month ago
    I agree with everything that's been said - it is a great article and a fantastic reminder of some real truths. If you've not read "Good to Great" by Jim Collins, order it now - it's a really good book and an easy read.

    Over the past few years I've had my trust and faith in human nature battered many times by the kind of arrogant people mentioned. My strategy now is to be true to myself, behave with professionalism and integrity, and - above all - go home each night with my pride and self-belief intact. Yes, you can climb the greasy pole by trampling over everyone, hurting people, taking credit where it's NOT due, etc. ...... and you will probably be successful ..... but will you be able to sleep at night?
  • dazzle359 wrote Over a month ago
    Thank you for the link Jara, it was very helpful to read all the posts on this subject. I suppose at first, I thought I would just carry on, with no thought of moving ahead, I felt my drive and motivation slipping. Just do your job, and don't try to be outstanding, or driven to be the best or greatest. I think I just need to be more observant, and keep my mouth shut, and wait for a more appropriate time to share my ideas. Those ideas can always be used within a team atmosphere, so that hopefully credit will go where credit is due.

    Thanks again.
  • Jara wrote Over a month ago
    Hi dazzle,

    I'm really sorry that this person has trod on your toes like this, and then gotten such great rewards for being the antithesis of a team player and, it seems, decent human being. I had a small taste of this type of behavior myself a few months back. I posted a topic in the Career Cafe that you might like to read - I called it "Help I'm Being Sabotaged" this is the link: http://mindtools.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=188 (hope I can put his here - I've seen other links get moderated out but the MindTools one appear to be ok)

    While my situation is not far as grave as yours, the responses might help you see the situation in a different light.

    As far as I can tell, the only thing you can do for yourself is to keep working hard and believe in the truism that "what comes around, goes around"

    The lesson - not all people are nice and there are a lot things that are not fair or right in this world. The only person's fate that you have any real control over is your own. Work hard and revel in the self satisfaction that comes from that. I know it's a hard pill to swallow - I'd personally like to do somehting really awful to people like this - but I don't think I could survive a night in jail let alone the sentence I'd get .

    Don't stop believing in yourself or the other people in the field you can admire. Snakes are slippery, they can get into the most unseemly of places, but they can't hide forever....
  • dazzle359 wrote Over a month ago
    I could not believe that I read this article just when I needed it. I must, however ask for help with a particular situation that I am having a problem with. How do you handle a situation when someone who is the furtherest thing from humble continues to be rewarded for awful behavior? Just when I thought I was over it, and did not care any more about politics. This person actually undermined and stepped on everyone in the department to get ahead, hurting many people, including myself. This person continues to gain power, and grow and prosper. I decided to just "erase" it from my mind, and just worry about me, and just do the best job I could do, under any circumstance. The original back stabbing situation occurred in 2002. I moved away from this person, even left the institution for a time,and continued to work hard, and stay away from the negative. Just yesterday, as I was looking at a magazine, there was her picture. Voted one in 20 of the top persons in her field, in the state! My field, and my state! What a way to totally ruin your day. Just let it go, and pray. . . which I am trying to do. So far that is not working. As I try, and try, and try to let it go, I just keep seeing her face, on the cover. What do you do? What lesson am I suppose to be learning? What am I missing, here? How do you stop looking at the leaders in your field, and wondering how they got there?

    Dazzle359
  • ladyb wrote Over a month ago
    What a beautiful article. We need to hear these messages more often. Thanks for the wonderful reminder!

    Brynn

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