The Leader Everyone Wants: Humble

Aug 15, 2017 | First Person

By J. Lenora Bresler, J.D., SHRM-SCP, SPHR

Leadership, like beauty, is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Because of their unique backgrounds and personalities, individual team members think certain leadership characteristics are more important than others. Knowing the differing outlooks of team members is key to effective leadership. For example, some people care most that their leader has a clear, articulated vision, while others focus on timely and transparent communication. Some crave consistency while others rally to leaders seen as committed to developing those coming behind them. Indeed, cultures around the world often revere certain leadership attributes more than others. What’s more, whether your team perceives you to have the attributes they revere is equally important to the reality of whether or not you actually possess them. You must, therefore, care—and care deeply—about what others think about you.

Worldwide surveys clearly indicate that one thing everyone wants in a leader is humility. The problem is that despite being counseled from childhood to “be humble,” most of us don’t understand what true humility is. We think it requires minimizing one’s own accomplishments and abilities, and this results in both inward frustration and outward ridiculousness. Research indicates women are particularly prone to this mistake. Those who are genuinely talented or insightful try to convince themselves (generally unsuccessfully) they aren’t or feel almost ashamed of their success, holding back and possibly hiding their light under the proverbial bushel. This self-deprecation, which may be refreshing initially to teammates, quickly deteriorates into concern and even resentment that their leader is not capable of leading them with confidence and strength. At its worst, it can result in what has been dubbed “the imposter syndrome,” whereby leaders forego opportunities due to an inward concern they are not well-enough prepared to undertake a new challenge. At a time when innovation and risk-taking are viewed as hallmarks of modern leaders, such reticence can be a huge roadblock to advancement and reputation.

So what exactly is humility? As C.S. Lewis, writer of The Narnia Chronicles, explained, “Humility consists not in thinking less of yourself but thinking about yourself less.” Humility is thus about focus—what are you concentrating on and what do you spend time thinking about?  

A great example of true humility comes from the American Revolution. A sergeant was standing on the side of the road, supervising his small band of soldiers as they dug a ditch. An unknown officer on horseback approached and observed that the men were few in number and were, therefore, struggling with the task. He dismounted and jumped into the ditch, shoveling alongside the group until it was completed. He then remounted and said, “Sergeant, if your men ever need help again, send word to General George Washington and I’ll be happy to return.”

George Washington did not have to diminish his great strategic capability to engage temporarily in a menial task that many would have correctly classified as being beneath his immense abilities. He saw a need and that was the focus of his thinking. He recognized that something important to the overall success of a mission needed to be done and he saw people who needed assistance that he could provide, and he did so—uncaring of, or more literally not thinking about, his rank or ego.

It is important to note, however, that Washington did NOT remain in the ditch. Humble leaders understand that they can usually serve the cause more by devoting most of their time to activities very different from the rest of their teammates. It is not about a task being “beneath me,” but rather how abilities can be optimized for the good of the team. It is, therefore, generally not wise for a leader to aspire to work “side by side, shoulder to shoulder” with their teammates—although such intimate contact is often characterized as humility, especially if a leader was once a peer to those she now leads. Nevertheless, it is not usually the way in which a leader’s skills can best be used.

It is also important not to confuse communication style with humility. Sometimes quiet, reserved personalities are supposed humble, whereas outgoing, more bombastic styles are assumed to be ego-centric and attention-seeking. This can cause great misunderstanding and unnecessary hurt and conflict.

Great leaders benefit from being humble—and thankfully, it is much easier than we may have thought. Simply shift your focus—from yourself to other people and bigger goals.

About the Author

J. Lenora Bresler, president of NAWBO-Lakeland Metro, is a leadership and engagement speaker, author, trainer and coach. Bresler’s motto is “creating the best leaders, teams and relationships on earth.” Her latest book is Instant Insight: 15 Questions to Great Relationships. She posts weekly videos on leadership topics on Facebook and on her YouTube channel. Learn more at

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