The more I read about humility, the more that I am confused about it. We need to be humble, but we also need to demonstrate confidence. But not too much confidence. And certainly not arrogance or narcissism. Hmm. I’m already confused.
So let’s start at the beginning. What is humility? Andrew Morris, Celeste Brotheridge and John Urbanski propose that humility is an internal, stable personality trait. Modesty is the external expression of humility. Although, you can express modesty without actually being humble, although this would be “false modesty”.
We define humility as a personal orientation founded on a willingness to see the self accurately and a propensity to put oneself in perspective. We believe that authentic humility involves neither self-abasement nor overly positive self-regard. (p. 1331)
Morris et. al., suggest that there are three dimensions to humility: 1) self-awareness; 2) openness; and, 3) transcendence.
Self-awareness is the ability to accurately perceive, understand and accept ones own strengths and weaknesses.
With self-awareness comes the knowledge that we might possibly be wrong, or lack knowledge. Those who acknowledge this possibility can then become open to new ideas, the perspectives of others, or new ways of knowing things.
Transcendence is the third proposed aspect of humility. Transcendence provides us with a perspective on our own importance within the grand scheme of things. “Transcendence can best be thought of as an acceptance of something greater than self.” (p. 1331) It is the recognition of the “small role that one plays in the vast universe, an appreciation of others, and a recognition that others have positive worth.” (p. 1331)
Humility is not about servitude or self-abasement. It is not necessarily about religion. In my opinion, it is necessary to offset some of the more negative Western cultural beliefs about self-esteem and importance/uniqueness of the individual.
According to a study of undergraduate students by Juile Exline and Anne Geyer, we see humility as a strength in religious seekers/leaders; subordinates and close others (i.e. friends and family). But, the students did not rate humility as a strength in leaders/entertainers.
This would suggest that humility is not perceived as a strength of leaders. The question is, should it be? Has our individualist Western society become too focused on the self?
Sources: Morris, Andrew, Brotheridge, Celeste and Urbanski, John. “Bringing Humility to Leadership: Antecedents and Consequences of leader humility”. Human Relations. Oct 2005. 58; 10. p. 1323 – 1350.
Exline, Julie and Beyer, Anne. “Perceptions of Humility: A Preliminary Study.” Self and Identity. 3: 95 — 114, 2004.