Physician Heal Thyself: Humility and Leadership

The cartoon in this post (shown here under a creative commons license), from Kevin Spear made me laugh. But it also started me thinking about the idea of humility.  How do we claim to be humble, without it sounding like hubris?

Humility is the upside of self-awareness. Research suggests that followers value humility in leaders.  So what is humility?

It is an even-handed assessment of our abilities. That is we carefully look at both our strengths and weaknesses. We accept praise, don’t deny our accomplishments and are not defensive when receiving criticism.  We understand ourselves in relation to both the groups we belong and to the greater whole. Humility is not hierarchical but it is reciprocal.  Humble people are not overly focused on personal or group agendas, but are accepting of something greater than themselves.

As a student of leadership it sometimes occurs to me that I hardly live up to the demands of a good leader. When I read about arrogance, humility, empathy, integrity and other elements of leadership, I can’t help but reflect on my own degree of these traits.  And I usually come up short.

Research suggests that too much self-focus can result in depression, neuroticism, self-destructive behaviour and decreased motivation.  I guess if one comes up short against the gold standard, one might become depressed?

On the flip side, if we’re not aware of our strengths and weaknesses, it’s hard to change, to become more effective.

One of my faculty colleagues, on hearing that I am researching humility and leadership, quipped that the combination of researcher and topic was ironic.  And perhaps he is right.

I suspect that the experience of writing a PhD dissertation on the topic of humility in management will humble me enough to satisfy most observers. Meantime, I take solace in the hope that understanding the importance of humility in organizations can help us develop more effective leaders, which the world badly needs.


3 replies »

  1. In everything there needs to be balance. This is never more important than in attempting to execute “good leadership”.

  2. Wow–what a great dissertation topic! We cover humility in the leadership book I coauthored with two colleagues. Let me know if you’d like a copy! Love the cartoon.

    • Thanks Emma. I’d love a copy of your book as I’m working on my preliminary lit review right now. It’s a coincidence, but I worked in Minneapolis at General Mills in the mid 90s. Feel free to contact me via email (you can get the contact info on my profile on the Brescia University College website (brescia.uwo.ca). Thanks for taking the time to comment.


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