The Art of Humility in Leadership

By Paul Osincup

On the subject of humility, Mother Teresa said, “If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace because you know what you are”.  Similarly, Gandhi reminds us that “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom, it is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”

I understand that in the shadow of humble and transformational leaders throughout history, for me to dispense guidance to leaders about how to be humble is one of the least humble things I could do. Truth be told though, I’m not humble. At least, I don’t think I am naturally; it’s something I have to think about and work at.

Our work culture and social media accounts train us to flaunt our accomplishments, and not admit weaknesses. As we begin our careers, we need to show how competent, confident, and capable we are and strive to get more leads, more sales, a promotion, and so forth. Finally, we’re in a leadership role and told we also need to be humble.  I’ve been working so hard to be awesome, and now I have to be humble, too?

Humility isn’t just an idealistic leadership buzzword, it also strengthens a leader’s impact. According to research in the Academy of Management Journal, leaders who are humble actually embolden individuals to aspire to their highest potential and enables them to make the incremental improvements necessary to progress toward that potential” creating followers who are more motivated, loyal, and work harder.  Here are four ways to convey humility as a leader to go hand in hand with your awesomeness.

  • Maintain your Confidence

Think of humility and confidence as two sides of a scale, and your job is to notice and react when the scale is out of balance. Humility is important, but too much humility and not enough confidence is counterproductive for leaders. Confidence without humility is arrogance and humility without confidence is self-deprecation.

Recall a time when you saw someone use “self-deprecating” humor. It only works when the person is confident enough with themselves to deliver it, otherwise it makes you feel uncomfortable and as though they are fishing for compliments or just being mean to themselves. The bottom line is that it takes confidence to demonstrate humility.

  • Say “I Don’t Know”

All too often, we (and I definitely include myself in this) nod along pretending we know what our friends and colleagues are talking about when they bring up current events, concepts, or that author that surely you must have heard of. Instead of “faking it until you make it”, it’s ok to say “No I’ve never heard of that, can you tell me more?”.  In a day and age when everyone is their own carefully curated personal brand, that kind of modesty isn’t just acceptable… it’s refreshing.

  • Listen Twice as Much as you Speak

My third grade teacher once told me “Paul, you have two ears and one mouth you should listen twice as much as you speak.” This was a great visual for a third grader to remember. Of course she also told me I had “diarrhea of the mouth” which wasn’t such a great visual for me. You probably know someone at work who only asks others how they’re doing so they can instantly hijack the conversation and start talking about themselves. If you’re not sure who this is at your work, it could be you. Sometimes we get stuck in a pattern of listening with the intent to reply rather than simply listening to hear someone out or give them space to say what is on their mind.

  • Laugh at Yourself

Like the other tips, this one is common sense but not common practice. I’ve seen “Laugh at Yourself” as advice given in countless leadership and self-development articles in the past. However, nobody tells us how to do it and it is much easier said than done. When am I supposed to laugh at myself? When I lock my keys in the trunk of my rental car on the way to a job interview? Not realistic. Perhaps I can laugh about it later, but having a sense of humor about it isn’t my initial reaction; I get scared, mad, and freak out. Finding ways to laugh more won’t just stop you from having a tantrum, it’s actually good for your health.  A 2014 study by Dr. Lee Berk at Loma Linda University found that laughter produces an abundance of gamma brain waves, similar to those found in a person who meditates often. With that in mind, here’s a modification to a mindfulness strategy to help you begin to see humor in your life in real time rather than just retrospect:

For the next two weeks, before you go to bed think, “What is one thing I did today that I can laugh at myself about?” Then, write that down in a journal or in your phone. At the very least you’ll end up with 14 funny anecdotes to use in conversation with people to let them know that you don’t take yourself too seriously. But what’s more is that ultimately, there will be a moment where something negative will happen during your day that would typically upset you, but instead you’ll think, “I’ll be writing that one down tonight.” That’s when you know you’ve begun to train your brain to see more humor in real time, causing you less stress.

The Real Secret to Humility Is…

These are a few ideas about how to balance humility with the confidence needed to be an effective leader, but ultimately what is the number one secret to humility? The truth is, I don’t know.

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Posted by Paul Osincup- 20 July, 2018


Paul Osincup is a Speaker and Positive Workplace Strategist who helps companies create dynamic and engaging work climates. With a background in Higher Education Leadership & Administration, Paul has also been a “Jack-of-all-Jokes” since grade school. His experience as a stand-up and improv comic fueled his desire to make work climates more fun, positive, and productive. His TED Talk on Humor in Leadership has been viewed over 30,000 times (only 12 of which are from him) and occasionally he even makes his wife laugh. Paul has worked with hundreds of businesses to create positive work climates and his strategic partners and clients include The Onion, Nasdaq and Kaiser Permanente. Paul also serves on the Board of Directors of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, an international organization dedicated to the study and application of humor to improve health and human performance. For more information go to: www.paulosincup.com In his previous roles as a university administrator and Dean, Paul was responsible for addressing high-risk behavioral issues like substance abuse, mental health crises, and sexual assaults. In 2013 he was a consultant at the U.S. Department of Education's Center for Alcohol, Drug, and Violence Prevention and he still speaks to administrators around the nation about this topic on behalf of several non-profit agencies. Despite the serious nature of his work, Paul has been a “Jack-of-all-Jokes” since grade school, and his experience as both a Dean and a class clown fuels his commitment to using positivity and humor to create more productive and fun work cultures. Paul is a guest writer for The Whil Blog.