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January 2016: Many advantages to humility in leadership

The end of one year, the beginning of the next.

I am wishing you continued learning and insight in 2016. In that spirit, I will offer a few thoughts on the nature of humility in leadership.

Throughout the course of my life and career, the leaders who have stood out the most display genuine humility.

It’s one of those qualities that stands above the rest, something you recognize in a thousand small gestures, but is difficult to manufacture.

I’m not talking about the false modesty of refusing to take credit for an accomplishment, or thinking yourself unworthy of anything good or beating yourself to a pulp because of a mistake.

I’m not referring to those who drive themselves every day, in everything they do, then downplay their efforts. Or those sedate, outwardly modest individuals who eschew social attention and public recognition. Real humility is less syrupy – and more subtle — than all that.


I’m talking about the humility of accurate knowing, of deep self-awareness. The profound fascination with, and acceptance of, the mystery and randomness of life.

The genuinely humble do not put themselves up, nor tear themselves down. There’s a good chance that if you function with humility, you don’t think too much about wanting to appear humble. You just are that way.

You have accepted how short life really is. Instead of greedily hoping life lasts, you realize today could be your last day. So you don’t take it for granted, and you try to make the most of it. What you are most afraid of is wasting and squandering.

Opportunities to grow and learn are rarely turned down because of laziness or apathy, and rarely accepted because of self-importance.

You see yourself as you really are – one of approximately 120 billion homo sapiens who have walked the earth. You have a realistic view of yourself: “I am nothing special, but I’m all I have, and I want to make the most of it.”

Your best self

Being your best self is more important to you than comparing yourself to others. Your measuring stick does not consist of becoming stronger, faster, richer, smarter or better than the next person.

If you own a company, you promote a focus on maximizing your products and services, not on “beating the competition.” Your parenting philosophy, often unspoken, is, “Control what you can control, learn from your mistakes, and do your very best. Don’t waste time worrying about what others are doing or not doing.”

You know that what you don’t know is vast and infinite. So, you don’t appear like someone who knows a lot. Your language reflects that awareness. In response to questions, you routinely say, “I don’t know,” “It depends,” or “Let me think about it.”

You admire the efforts of others. Goodness and beauty catch your attention. You notice how people function, and how they respond when they face adversity, hardship or pain. You appreciate the dilemmas and knotty predicaments that you and others face, as part of the tapestry of an imperfect existence.

You are able to walk that fine line of condemning the sin without judging the sinner.

Acknowledging luck

You understand that you have been very lucky, that most of what you are and possess has come through no merit of your own. You have reflected on how certain fortuitous happenings in your life bestowed advantages on you that helped you get to this point.

You neither take credit for good fortune, nor blame for bad luck. You use words like “deserve” guardedly, or not at all.

On that point, you highly esteem hard work and “cooperating with luck.” But you accept that all success builds on good fortune, whether in studies, marriage, parenting, work or health.

You experience daily gratitude, particularly for the people who love you despite your limitations. You appreciate the people who have helped you in your life, and you don’t forget about them when success comes your way.

You can experience empathy for another, without the ego-driven need to jump in and save everyone from the fears and setbacks of life. In that sense, you are the opposite of the narcissist, who cannot escape being self-absorbed, and the psychopath, who is incapable of empathy.

You cut people a break. Because you know yourself, you know how easy it is to make a mistake in life. Your most common response when reading about a tragedy or a crime, is to think to yourself, “That could be me.” Smugness, as in, “I’m glad I’m not like that,” doesn’t occur to you.


You are not blind to your own secrets. You are fully aware that you have harbored shameful fantasies, thought mean-spirited thoughts, wished for forbidden fruit and caused harm to others in words and deeds. You have accepted the fact of your own fallibility, and work to minimize its effects.

You are able to relax. You enjoy life as a temporary gift. You experience small pleasures – breathing fresh air, a hug, a leaf, a soothing sip of soup, a moment of joy – as privileges. You are aware of being alive, and when you catch yourself sleepwalking, you rely on a system of reminders – prayer, meditation, feedback, a quiet walk – to wake yourself up.

Humility in leadership is rare and powerful, the outcome of reflection and awareness. It does not come easily to the hell-bent or the shallow. Perhaps that is why, in their own measured way, the authentically humble capture our admiration.

May yours be a new year steeped in genuine humility!

6 Responses to “January 2016: Many advantages to humility in leadership”

  1. January 01, 2016 at 1:38 am, Jerry said:

Really a beautiful piece of writing. One of my favorites because I think you really did pinpoint the secret ingredient in leadership.

  1. January 01, 2016 at 6:49 am, Kirk Morrison said:

Thank you for the blog posts. They are thought provoking and illustrate the type of functioning that I strive for.

All the best in 2016.

Warmly, Kirk

  1. January 01, 2016 at 2:02 pm, Scott said:

Thank you John. As usual, a very insightful piece. Your writing always speaks directly to me and I am grateful for the time you take to publish your learnings and teachings. I had a coach mention to me once that “he was worried that I might not be able to get out of my own head.” That observation has stuck with me and this article highlights to me areas where I am operating consciously today and areas that require more attention. Thank you and happy new year!(

  1. January 01, 2016 at 3:10 pm, Neil Ingenito said:

John, this is the first time I have read your blog and now I will go back and read the ones that I have ignored. Your thoughts on humility are very insightful and it compliments a book I just read by David Brooks, “The Road to Character” These insights give me hope that there is a way to a better life through our own effort and attitude and life does not have to be as chaotic as it sometimes seems. Happy New Year. Neil

  1. January 01, 2016 at 8:18 pm, Krista said:

Dear John, You have expressed succinctly the lessons I learned the hard way in my lucky survival of brain injury. My intention is to live authentically and to be a positive force in the lives of others with whom I share my work, play and love in 2016. Another way to express my humility is in this quote: ‘the skills, aptitudes and gifts we are born with are God’s gifts. What we do with these is Gods’ work. Enjoy a very happy and prosperous New Year!

  1. January 07, 2016 at 3:01 pm, Lynn Acquafondata said:

Inspiring. There is so much to work towards in this post. A good way to start the year.

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