My path to humility requires constant focus and discipline. I struggle with the impulse to seek praise and shy away from criticism, especially at work. But lately I have found that one of the best ways to practice humility as a leader is by being aware of my own mistakes and struggles.
Recently I put this into practice when I called a colleague to apologize for winning a debate. We had just engaged in a fierce discussion, during which I used facts, figures and outcomes to take him down and disprove his poor business decision. After I won the argument and hung up the phone, I realized that I had also communicated to him that he had to make perfect choices. I was telling him that making a less than perfect choice was not okay. Over the course of 25 years, I had made similar mistakes many times over. Yet, I expected him not to … Hello!! I felt horrible, so I called him back to ask for his forgiveness.
It still feels counterintuitive to write about my own act of humility. But I chose to share this story because it shows that being humble doesn’t always come naturally, and sometimes we don’t get it right the first time. It can be difficult to hold back our own pride, or arrogance, or desire to win for the sake of our glory. When we admit our faults, accept others’ mistakes, and show up in a loving way that communicates an attitude of service and care for others (even after the fact), we begin to lead humbly.
Ways to Practice Humility
The most humble folks I know have amazing focus and clarity on who they are, things they do well, and things they do not do well. They are accomplished in so many ways, yet they rarely boast or expect praise. They are rarely offended when their areas of challenges are exposed, because they are clear on who they are.
Here are some ways I see humility being practiced by leaders on my own team every day.
- Speak little of oneself. This can be as simple as asking about someone’s weekend, and listening fully to the answer, at the water cooler. Or it can mean biting your tongue in a meeting even when an opportunity to discuss something you’ve accomplished is laid out before you.
- Be involved with others to support them, not to manage them. When other people report to you, that means they look to you for guidance. This is an important perspective to keep as a leader. If you engage with your team wholeheartedly and take a vested interest in their progress as individuals, then you lead humbly. When you come at your team from a place of micro-management, control or disapproval, you lose them.
- Accept the fact that at times, we are contradictory. We simply don’t always make sense, and that may disappoint people around us. It’s okay that our tendencies and choices or impulses are confusing to others sometimes.
- Take feedback with an open spirit. Don’t just listen to feedback; take it to heart. One of the most personally destructive things you can do in a review situation is to act defensively. Openness to criticism will help you grow as an employee, person, and leader.
- Be kind and gentle, even when you can choose not to. In any work environment, situations can get heated. People can react aggressively, angrily, and even with malice. The best way to cut through the tension is with a measured, kind response–no matter how much you might want to fight fire with fire.
Finally, show up in a loving way. This means taking a position that is about service and care, not dignity and judgement. And if your impulse, like mine in the story I shared above, is to judge, it’s okay to change your mind. Calling somebody back, writing an email of apology, or tracking them down to say sorry is a truly humble way of acknowledging your own faults and leading with love.