The word humility stems from both the Greek and Hebrew humilitas, and it actually means two different things. In the negative sense, it means to be put low, which is to be humiliated. In the positive, it means to lower yourself, which is to be humble.
Most of us can relate to both of those experiences, but more often than not in a corporate setting, people think of being humble as a disingenuous deflection of credit: Aw, shucks; it weren’t nothing.
But, being humble isn’t about false modesty. It is about coming down from your position of power and authority for the greater good of your organization and your people.
Unfortunately, it’s the negative form of humilitas that most of us are more familiar with at work. Executive explosions of emotion or degradation of others become literal examples of the word’s origins — a put down. You can do that with a glance, a facial expression or the tone of your voice.
All it takes is for a senior executive to respond to a staff member’s comment with an are you serious tone.
The willingness to humiliate or put down others may feel powerful in the moment, but leaders who are running exceptional organizations know that real power is something else altogether.
In Jim Collins’ landmark book Good to Great, he clearly identified that the CEOs of companies that had made the transition from good to great tended to possess the paradoxical presence of both steely determination (will) and compelling modesty (humility).
Many businesses focus on the first half of that definition and forget about the second. We tend to assume that great leadership means driving to results, being an A-type personality or not taking no for an answer.
What is particularly compelling about the identification of these two traits in the leaders of great companies is that Collins stumbled upon them accidentally. He specifically told his researchers: Let’s stay away from factoring in the persona of executives … and every time, the researchers came back and said: It’s impossible to ignore because there’s something unusual here that clearly comes from the leadership.
So, how does one go about leading with humility? Very simply: Before you can do it, you have to know what it looks like.
By its nature, the negative form is vivid and noticeable, if for no other reason than its true ugliness and affront to the human psyche. Conversely, in its positive form, humility often simply goes unnoticed. It operates by not calling attention to itself.
The Australian scholar John Dickson, in his book Humilitas, gave this working definition: “Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources, or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.”
For example, I have a client who is a world-famous iconic architect of private estates. He has repeatedly been named as one of the top 100 architects in the world by the leading architectural magazines, the Robb Report, the American Institute of Architects and the like. His name is his brand.
For the last five years or so, he’s received numerous awards given out at big, glitzy, glamorous ceremonies usually held in Los Angeles, Manhattan or London. What does he do? He sends members of his team to receive the award. His message is: This is really about my team and not about me.
I recently observed another great example of humility in action in one of my clients, a chief marketing officer. When we meet, all he wants to talk about is what he can do for his team. For example:
I had a meeting scheduled with him recently, and he called me to say he was running late because he had to stop and get donuts for his team. As it turns out, he had made a promise to buy donuts every week for a year if they got a particular project done by a certain deadline.
The donuts, of course, are really just a proxy for the respect and appreciation that he feels for his team.