In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to Apple and had one of the greatest runs a CEO has ever made in history. A little over a decade before, as the Corporate Governance Institute explains, Jobs was fired from the company because he “famously pushed people too hard, rubbed people the wrong way, and burned bridges left and right. He was building an incredible business but making everyone around him unhappy. As a result, Apple’s board believed he wasn’t ready for the CEO role.”
So, what changed? As explained in a study published by the Journal of Applied Psychology, developing one particular quality was Jobs’ saving grace: humility. “Although Jobs was still seen as narcissistic, his narcissism appeared to be counterbalanced or tempered with a measure of humility, and it was this tempered narcissist who led Apple to be the most valuable company in the world,” the study concludes.
In business, leaders are often taught and encouraged to possess strong traits. They are told that to lead effectively, they must be hard, diligent, confident, unrelenting, and even narcissistic in terms of their vision and the pursuit of it. While these traits hold value, Jobs’ story demonstrates what happens when a leader doesn’t keep their humility in check, and what happens when they do.
You must balance confidence, empathy, conscientiousness, and humility to lead successfully. In this article, discover what it means to be humble, so you can unlock new pathways of thought that result in new opportunities for growth, innovation, and collaboration.
- Being humble does not mean having low self–esteem.
- Those who make higher incomes are more likely to be prideful.
- People born into a higher social class are 33% more likely to act entitled.
- Humility at work and in leadership cultivates growth, collaboration, engagement, and innovation.
What Does It Mean to Be Humble?
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”C. S. Lewis
Being humble means having a balanced and sincere view of yourself and your abilities. It is characterized by a lack of arrogance and a deep understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. This mindset enables individuals to transcend ego-driven desires, such as status and power. It also allows them to listen attentively and approach situations with empathy, open-mindedness, and a genuine desire to serve and uplift others.
However, having humility doesn’t mean having low self-esteem. Rather, being humble reflects a willingness to learn and understand the contributions of oneself and others to cultivate healthy relationships and nurture a greater sense of interconnectedness.
Characteristics of humility include:
- Modesty in one’s achievements
- Self-awareness of one’s limitations
- A willingness to learn and grow
- Demonstrated respect toward others
- Presence of appreciation and gratitude
By contrast, a lack of humility is characterized by traits of self-centeredness, entitlement, and arrogance. A study by Darden professor Sean Martin revealed one possible cause of this. His research concluded that people born into greater privilege or social class had 33% higher levels of entitlement than those who hadn’t been. Another study, published by the American Psychological Association echoed this research, revealing that higher income fostered more self-pride.
The Importance of Humility at Work
“Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.”Simon Sinek
People respect and follow others that they trust. When leaders and members of management demonstrate humility, appreciation, and other traits of emotional intelligence at work, they become trustworthy to those around them. Communication, connection, and a company’s overall corporate culture can suffer without this trust.
A study by the University of South Carolina reported that “researchers found that CEOs high in humility were associated with a number of positive executive leadership team outcomes . . . This integration included an increased likelihood of helping each other. Higher CEO humility was also related to lower pay disparity between the CEO and the executive leadership team.”
Additionally, humility cultivates several important aspects of business success, such as:
- Collaboration and teamwork: Humble people are more likely to work well in teams and collaborate effectively with others. This is because humility encourages open communication, idea-sharing, and the ability to listen to diverse perspectives.
- Effective leadership: Humble leaders are likelier to create an inclusive and empowering work environment where employees feel valued and supported. They are approachable, willing to listen, and open to feedback, positively influencing morale and engagement.
- Learning and growth: Humble people have a growth mindset and are open to learning from others. They recognize that they don’t have all the answers and are willing to seek feedback and consider different perspectives. This mindset promotes continuous learning and leads to improved skills and performance in the workplace.
- Resolving conflicts: A humble person is likelier to approach conflicts with empathy and understanding. This is because they are willing to admit mistakes, take responsibility, and seek mutually beneficial solutions, leading to effective conflict resolution and stronger relationships.
- Adaptability and innovation: Being humble means being open to new ideas and considering alternative approaches. This adaptability allows a person to embrace innovation, be receptive to new technologies, and contribute to a culture of continuous improvement.
- Employee engagement and retention: When employees feel respected, valued, and supported, they are more likely to be satisfied and motivated in their roles. This is why leaders must create an environment that encourages humility and promotes psychological safety, trust, and a sense of belonging.
- Enhanced decision-making: Having humility makes it more likely that a person will seek input from others, consider different perspectives, and be open to alternative viewpoints, helping them to make better decisions. This collaborative decision-making process can lead to better-informed decisions and reduce the risks of bias or tunnel vision.
6 Steps for Practicing Humility
“The x-factor of great leadership is not personality, it’s humility.”Jim Collins
1. Acknowledge Your Weaknesses
To become a humble person, first start by examining your thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. Pay attention to moments when you act arrogantly, dismissively, or self-centered. Identifying these points can help you to develop self-awareness, a concept that studies link with better self-control, creativity, and self-esteem.
How to facilitate greater self-awareness:
- Look inward with meditation and mindfulness exercises.
- Ask a trusted mentor for feedback.
- Recognize the good things by practicing gratitude.
- Reflect on both failures and victories: Ask yourself “What did I learn?” and “How can I improve?”
2. Be Willing to Learn From Others
Adopting a mindset that values learning, growth, and self-improvement is an excellent way to become humble. When you’re willing to learn from others, you can also accept constructive criticism and understand that no one—even you—has all the answers. Embrace challenges and setbacks as opportunities for growth rather than letting your ego dictate your responses.
How to acquire knowledge and skills from others:
- Allow yourself to be open-minded; release any tightly held beliefs or notions.
- Actively engage with people from different backgrounds and areas of expertise.
- Join discussion groups or participate in collaborative projects.
- Find a mentor who exemplifies the skills and qualities you would like to develop.
3. Ask for Feedback
Often, we have character traits we’re not aware of, or we have “blinders” on about how we come off toward others. Some studies even show that receiving feedback regularly keeps you highly engaged. For this reason, asking others for feedback can be instrumental both in becoming a humble person and becoming an ideal team player. To do this, find a trusted colleague or mentor whom you can truly listen to without becoming defensive or dismissive. The input and perspectives they share can broaden your own understanding and promote humility.
How to absorb feedback effectively:
- Listen fully to what someone is saying, allowing them to finish before responding.
- Practice pausing and taking a breath before responding.
- Ask questions to gain more insight into anything unclear or unsaid.
- Reflect on past moments of negative responses and consider ways to improve.
4. Practice Empathetic Leadership
As Dr. Ann Rumble explains in an interview with the American Psychological Association, “Empathetic people ask themselves, ‘Maybe I need to find out more before I jump to a harsh judgment.’”
When you practice pausing and trying to understand other perspectives, you open yourself up to new ways of thinking. Develop a genuine concern for the well-being of others and demonstrate kindness and compassion in your interactions. Actively seek ways to help and support others without expecting anything in return.
Ways to be lead with more empathy:
- Give others praise and recognition how they’d want to receive it.
- Take note of people’s body language and nonverbal cues; use them to understand someone better.
- If there’s a particular way in which you can help or offer support to an employee, do so.
For more insights on empathetic leadership, read “What is Empathy? Data Says It’s the Leadership Skill Needed Most.”
5. Be Grateful
Research by Positive Psychology has linked gratitude not only with higher levels of happiness but with fewer health conditions as well. By cultivating a sense of gratitude for the blessings and opportunities in your life, you become more aware of the contributions and efforts of others. This, in turn, cultivates a humble and open mindset.
Tips for developing gratitude:
- Set aside a few minutes daily to write in a gratitude journal.
- Express your appreciation to others.
- Volunteer your time or efforts to an organization or project you care about.
- Use mindfulness techniques, like meditation, to be fully present and acknowledge small joys.
6. Develop Your Emotional Intelligence
Having emotional intelligence (EI) means being keenly aware of oneself, having empathy for others, and being able to regulate one’s emotions. A recent survey by Statista showed that emotional intelligence is a skill 36% of leaders believe will be necessary within the next three years. Humble people have high levels of EI because they’re open to the ideas of others and know their own limitations.
Resources for enhancing your emotional intelligence:
- Use the emotion wheel to practice identifying and addressing emotions as they occur.
- Increase self-awareness by seeking feedback from others.
- Practice active listening in social situations and remain curious and observant of others.
- Learn to pause before reacting and remain present in the moment.
- Read Emotional Intelligence: Build Strong Social Skills and Improve Your Relationships by Morten Johnson.
The Opposite of Humility
“We’re constantly trying to prove something that can’t be proven, trying to gain something that can’t be gained on the outside. The experience that deep down, fundamentally, we’re good enough and we’re worthy.”Dr. Maika Steinborn
Being humble means ditching the beliefs or habits that keep you stuck. For example, pridefulness can be very prohibitive in personal growth, relationship-building, learning, adaptability, and overall well-being. When learning how to stay humble, be sure to release the negative patterns that will drive you back to traits of entitlement and arrogance.
As Dr. Maika Steinborn shares, the opposite of humility is “the mindset of ‘I constantly need to prove myself, I need to prove my worth’ . . . this mindset turns every encounter into a bragging contest.” Fortunately, there are strategies for overcoming one’s ego.
Ways to ditch ego and insecurity to cultivate humility, according to Dr. David Richo:
- Follow the Golden Rule (doing unto others as you would have them do unto you).
- Let go of perceptions of status and ranking.
- Admit when you need help.
- Acknowledge when you don’t know something.
- Apologize when you know you’ve offended someone.
For more resources on releasing other traits of a toxic mindset, read “Perfectionism: Why You Have It (And How to Fix It).”
Being Humble Doesn’t Mean Reducing Yourself
“There are two kinds of pride, both good and bad. ‘Good pride’ represents our dignity and self-respect. ‘Bad pride’ is the deadly sin of superiority that reeks of conceit and arrogance.”John C. Maxwell
Being a humble person doesn’t mean reducing your standards or not celebrating your accomplishments. In fact, practicing ways to be kinder to yourself has been shown to reduce depression and lead to greater productivity and motivation. Having humility is about managing this balance; it’s about caring for yourself and others without giving either more priority over the other.
Tips for practicing “good pride”:
- Accept past mistakes and forgive yourself.
- Use positive self-talk or affirmations, such as “I am worthy.”
- Volunteer at a local organization that represents something you care about.
- Take personal time every day to do something you enjoy, guilt-free.
Continue shifting your perspective for enhanced success in life and business by reading “Growth Mindset: Creating an Environment for Innovation” next.
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