13 Ways to Lead with Humility

By: Josh

Where does humility rank on your list of most important leader qualities? I imagine it is not necessarily one that makes it toward the top of many of our lists, let alone a quality we initially think of at all. Socially, groups tend to rally around bold, brash, and charismatic characters who try to fill the role of leader or masquerade as one. These personalities are exciting, interesting, and often bring about a lot of change. But what are the consequences of supporting these kinds of people as leaders? What sacrifices does the group make that we don’t talk about? What are the lost opportunities of following self-important leaders?

If we easily misconstrue what we need in a leader, then what does ultimately make a leader memorable and effective? Is it things we see in these socially popular characters that we worship en masse? Personally, I’m a fan of Vanessa Van Edwards’ argument in her book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People, when she states that, “being memorable is not about bringing up your high points. It’s about highlighting theirs.”

I believe there’s a common thread between the most effective, impactful, memorable, and caring leaders in our lives – past and present. It’s a leader’s humility.

Defining Leader Humility

My preferred definition of humility comes from author C.S. Lewis, where he claims that humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. At its core, humility is being others-focused.

It’s important to first note that this requires a measured level of self-awareness and self-regulation, though. We need to accurately know ourselves and be able to control ourselves to demonstrate humility. We must have an accurate sense of our accomplishments and abilities. We need to acknowledge our limitations and developmental needs; that is self-awareness. Then we pair that with a low focus on ourselves, which is self-regulation. That means we don’t make ourselves the center of attention, we don’t control conversations or situations, we don’t dominate, and we don’t consume all the leadership space within the team.

It's also important to note that humility is not timidity or meekness. It is not downplaying our abilities to the point where we are unwilling to use them to bring value to the team. Humility is not chronic self-deprecation. It’s not an unwillingness to accept compliments. It’s modesty. It’s focusing out. It’s all the ways we can employ our knowledge, skills, and abilities as leaders to add value to the organization, to make people and the organization better, and to champion others.

The Importance of Humility

So, why is humility—thinking of ourselves less—important as a leader? Does it matter that much? An organizational leader’s humility can actually create conditions across the entire team, having much more of an impact beyond just themselves. Particularly, humble leaders enable:

  • Others to fill leadership space: We can step back and let others fill in to encourage shared ownership and create more developmental opportunities for them.
  • A curious and learning environment: Encourages everyone on the team to pause and focus on seeking to understand before rushing to a decision or inserting themselves in the situation.
  • Collaboration: By recognizing our limitations, we are willing to invite and involve others into decisions.
  • A culture of compassion: We recognize mistakes and failure are a part of growth. We also know life brings challenges and we help others to be able to bring them to the surface if needed.
  • Shared authenticity: We are not trying to lie, hide, or fake our way through our work and we encourage others not to either.
  • A more engaged team: People feel more seen, heard, valued, and cared for when their leaders are focused on them.
  • Being approachable: When people know we care for them and focus on making matters about others, they are more willing to bring us their challenges, problems, or involve us in their lives more.

13 Ways to Lead with Humility

How do we lead in more humble ways as leaders? Here are 13 ways to help us all practice more consistent and genuine humility:

  1. Involve others in decision making. Let others weigh in with their thoughts and recommendations. Not only are you able to then pull from a larger and more diverse pool of options, but by engaging others in the process, you encourage them to own the final decision, too.
  2.  Be willing to ask for help. It’s as easy as saying, “I don’t know, actually. What do you think?”
  3. Admit mistakes and failures. Be willing to own mistakes or failures and admit to them directly. Don’t try to hide them or ignore them. Use these as lessons for others to learn from and show how you grew from them.
  4. Ask questions all the time, especially during casual conversations. Don’t make discussions about you. Always defer to be others-focused. People become interested in those that are interested in them. Focus on being interested, not interesting.
  5. Share stories, but make sure they have a point. It’s ok to share stories or experiences from your past. But don’t share them merely to talk about yourself. Share them to offer a lesson. Ensure your stories have a “so what” and “therefore” lesson to them.
  6. Demonstrate a growth mindset. Every experience, event, and moment are an opportunity for development. This applies to you and for others.
  7. Express gratitude and celebrate others. Gratitude felt does not mean gratitude is shared. If we don’t share it, they won’t know it. Be deliberate in sharing gratitude and celebrating others’ efforts or accomplishments. It can be public recognition in front of a group, a hand-written note, a simple but clear comment, or even a quick email. All are ways that they know we see their work, know it’s impactful, and appreciate it.
  8. Be open to, receptive of, and supportive of others’ ideas. Let others contribute. Validate their idea by asking questions about it and trying to understand it better. Thank them for the willingness to share. And help champion the idea if it is worthwhile.
  9. Stay keenly aware of team cohesion and collaboration. Do not allow in- vs. out-groups, scapegoats, or cliques. These build barriers and improperly bring focus and power to certain individuals.
  10. Be kind, compassionate, and respectful. Always, no matter the situation.
  11. Own responsibility, but share recognition. If our team fails at something, we own the responsibility. If we succeed, we share the credit with our team.
  12. Simply listen more. Actively and emphatically. Don’t be distracted when you interact with others. Remove barriers like phones or computers. Maintain eye contact. Don’t look around when they speak. Aim to listen and ask questions twice as much as you talk during conversations.
  13. Do something helpful for someone else. Especially if it is of no benefit to you or the organization. Do it especially if they can’t return the favor. Do it if it only benefits them individually.

Understanding Humility vs. Confidence

Finally, it’s worth discussing if we can be humble leaders while also being confident? Are humility and confidence mutually exclusive? We explored how humility requires self-awareness, self-control, and a focus on others. But does that mean that we can’t be confident as leaders?

Bottom line: No. Leaders can be humble and also confident. However, it’s based in a distinction of where that confidence comes from and where it is oriented.

Humble leaders don’t demonstrate confidence out of self-interest or self-importance. It’s not narcissism to further a personal, self-benefiting agenda or reputation. And the confidence is not oriented towards personal accomplishments either. Humble leaders can have ambitions, but we don’t believe we are entitled to them.

Instead, leader confidence that is well balanced with humility is generated in order to add value to other people and the organization to further a collective mission or goal. We don’t deny our weaknesses; we work to overcome them to add the most value and have the greatest impact on others we can. We know our abilities, we use them to serve the team, and we focus on what the team is ultimately able to accomplish and not on what we did to enable it. Being confident does not mean we talk the most, do the most, or decide the most. We can be confident and talk less. We can be confident and let others fill leadership space by taking charge and deciding. We can be confident and be focused on others.

What is one new way that you can lead in a more humble way this week?

Do you unconsciously demonstrate any anti-humility behaviors that violate what humble leaders do?

How do you consistently demonstrate confidence and humility as a leader?

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