At one time or other, it is likely that we all have been exposed to a humble leader. I use the word exposed deliberately. Being in the presence of humility generates a profound and long-lasting effect. We feel touched by grace and truth. When the leader is both powerful and renowned for their expertise, the moment may even be tinged with awe. I had this experience in medical school, along with its diametric opposite. One of my professors was world-famous in his field and held multiple clinical and administrative positions in the medical school and hospitals. A colleague of his, who was my other professor at that time in the hospital, was not world famous, though he also held clinical and administrative roles. I most vividly remember the difference in their “noise” levels. The second professor bristled with a nervous, aggressive, hurried, preening energy that kept everyone, including patients, on edge. He exuded ego, arrogance and a sense of his own importance. In contrast, the presence of the other professor brought a stillness and calm to the room. Without saying a word, he captured everyone’s attention. Behind the quiet, you didn’t sense ego. Instead, he manifested curiosity, respect and above all humility. He was there to teach, but also to listen and learn, from his patients, his medical students, his staff. All these traits created the kind of authority that inspired people to follow and to perform at their best. In addition, I remember his sense of humor and an appreciation of life’s absurdities, even in the serious environment of a hospital. His genuine humility allowed his profound humanity to shine through.
Some misconceptions about humility
- Being humble implies lack of confidence and vulnerability, which is a sign of weakness.
- Humility suggests subservience and being a pushover.
- Humble leaders don’t actually lead. Employees operate without guidance and are free to decide what, how and when to do things.
- Humility won’t work because people can’t be trusted
- Humility is about wanting to be liked.
Some characteristics of humble leaders
Contrast the above, with this list of characteristics describing humble leaders from emotional intelligence expert Harvey Deutschendorf:
- “They don’t abuse their authority.
- They constantly look to promote others.
- They model and support collaboration.
- They model integrity and trust.
- They’re supportive of their staff.
- They’re able to admit their mistakes and shortcomings.
- They’re first to take responsibility and last to take credit.”
How could these attributes not positively impact turnover, absenteeism and team performance and work quality? Amer Kaissi, Professor of Healthcare Administration at Trinity University, describes how humble leaders are able to create more positive conditions, such as psychological safety, for their teams, as well as create greater employee motivation and engagement. In his most recent book, “Humbitious: The power of low-ego, high drive leadership”, Dr. Kaissi acknowledges that effective humility in leadership occurs on a spectrum- a balancing of ego and ambition that is sensitive to both situation and profession. That being said, cultivating humility can keep leaders personally grounded and connected to those around them, in ways that surpass hierarchal authority.
In his beautiful essay, “A Gentle and Humane Temper: Humility in Medicine”, Jack Coulehan MD, MPH, connects professionalism (a core competency in medical education) with medical virtue (an essential part of professionalism) with humility (an acknowledged medical virtue). He articulates four personal attributes that contribute to this virtue:
- Unpretentious Openness
- Avoidance of Arrogance
- Honest Self-Disclosure
- Modulation of Self-Interest
Like my professor of old, leaders who cultivate and model these qualities will have a formidable and inspirational impact that transcends time and place.
“Acquire the art of detachment, the virtue of method, and the quality of thoroughness, but above all the grace of humility.”Sir William Osler