Posts Tagged ‘humiliation’

Character and Personality #6: Humility

by Gary Monti on August 10, 2010

When conducting workshops on complex projects a common question is, “What characteristics must a leader have?” The next few blogs we will break away from temperament and cover several of the important character traits. The first is humility.

Conversations around this word can be all over the map. When asked for synonyms responses include “submissive,” “quiet,” and “unassertive,” and “cautious” to name a few. Let’s see if some clarity can be brought to the situation.

“To Serve”

We took a peek at humility in an earlier blog referring to samurai. “Samurai” means “to serve.” Samurai were humble. They knew their limits and worked within them. Getting the picture? If not, maybe it will become clearer by looking at one of my favorite quotes which happens to be anonymous:

“There are two types of people in the world – those who are humble and those who are about to be.”

Humility has less to do with affect (how we look to the outside world, e.g., quiet) and more to do with awareness; specifically awareness of one’s limitations. One reason teams come about is humility. Together we can work beyond our individual limits. Being humble, we can also pay attention to real boundaries and calculate how to push on them.


This all sounds well and good. But isn’t there an element of truth ringing in the words “submissive,” “unassertive,” etc.? No.

The meaning of humility may become clearer when compared to the word it is commonly confused with  – humiliation. There are two parts to the meaning of each word. The first part is the same, “To go to a small place.” It is in the second part where the words differ dramatically. With humility I choose to go to that small place. With humiliation…you probably have guessed it…I am pushed there by someone else!

Nice People Apparently Doing Bad Things

These definitions are morally neutral. Let me explain. You might know of a couple going through the following situation. One member (A) of a couple gets the job offer from heaven! The problem is it requires uprooting and moving to another city. This can humiliate the other partner (B) who might ask, “What about me?” Assuming A is free of any malicious thoughts of manipulating B, B still is saddled with an unfairness that needs to be addressed.  The challenge of interdependence is present. (For more on interdependence, see William Reed’s blog.) B is going to have to take a risk in order to work interdependently with A.

Fast-Paced Organizations

This issue shows up on the job on an almost daily basis. When a company says they are fluid, flexible, and fast-paced and will work to meet or exceed customer needs a set of questions comes to mind including, “Is the leader humble?” and “Does the leader watch for potentially humiliating situations and work with those who get pushed there?”

The principles by which the leader lives come into play. In the blog on navigating through change management the need for the leader to be steadfast, open, and available is discussed, i.e., the leader staying humble and stable – serving as a reference point for those who are feeling a bit humiliated as well as those who are getting to stay on their chosen path. Both groups of people are part of the success.

The Payoff

It is hard to overstate how much humility combined with interdependence contributes to creating a powerful team. Trust is present which fuels a feed-forward instead of a looking-back-and-wondering-what-happened frame of mind. The awareness of limits leads to better decision-making so not only is the team moving faster there is a higher probability of sustaining success. So, the next time humble pie is being served consider asking for a second slice.