What is Humility in Leadership?

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.


8 replies »

  1. Thanks Steve. I’m fortunate enough to have access to the best research on leadership and personal effectiveness available. My job is to translate it into plain english and provide people with an understanding of the applicability of the research to the real world.

    It’s great to know that someone reads and appreciates the effort this old blog takes. (And thanks to my other regular readers).

  2. Colleen, this is one we grapled with all the time. I love the simple way you’ve communication a complex topic. We talk about leaders who are confident they know a lot and are also confident that others can add value too. After all, chocolate is just that much better with peanut butter!

    • Hi Liane.

      Believe it or not, this is my proposed thesis topic. I continue to work on better understanding the whole balance between humility and confidence. And I’m greatful that I have access to some of the best research out there, where I sourced the dimensions of humility. And I too am a Reese’s fan! Thanks for reading. Please feel free to share my stuff, as I really benefit from the feedback of my readers.


  3. I think that when we are trying to consider our behaviour, and be more or lesshumble or confident, we stop be ourselves, so the right thing to do is to have a real estimation about what we are and just be ourselves!

  4. An excellent post! I totally agree that we should real- just be ourselves and consider every situation according to our inner thoughts and feelings. Leadership is strongly connected to humanity!

    • I understand why you feel we should “be ourselves”. However, if you read my posts on authenticity, you’ll find that my position is a bit different. There are times when “being ourselves” is not good for either ourselves, or the other members of our group, firm or organization. Like anything, authenticity, humility and confidence all need to be managed in balance with each other.

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