Pursue What Matters
Episode 77: Humility Matters
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
So is humility a characteristic of leadership that has seen its day? Is this even a characteristic that we need in leadership anymore? Or does it still matter?
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:13
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters Podcast, where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. Well, today we are going to talk about humility. And you know, I’m already…right out the gate, I’m going to tell you that humility matters. It matters more than ever. We have lots of examples of arrogant leaders, both in the public sector in the private sector in corporations. And I want to talk today about the research around humility, and why it matters more and more. In your leadership, in my leadership, if you want to be an effective leader, you need to be humble. So what is the opposite of humility? So one of the, you know, one of the corollaries of humility is pride. But one of the ways that that shows up especially at work is arrogance, right? Like, we all have the image of the arrogant boss, who we can hardly stand being around. And so I want to start the podcast today by talking about how this pride shows up as arrogance. And then we’ll jump into humility. And there are a couple things that happen. So first of all, I’m going to talk a little bit about arrogance. And then I also want to talk about false humility, because that is another thing that we see. And sometimes that can leave you scratching your head, like what on earth is going on? like something’s not quite right. And then we’re going to talk about why humility matters. And boy, it really, really does.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:27
So first of all, every week, my goal with a podcast is to help you strengthen your confidence to lead and I try to do that in one of three ways, either by helping you lead with clarity, lead with curiosity, or lead with a community. And so today, I want to help you in really two primary areas. The first one is with curiosity. So leading with curiosity, and when we think about curiosity, that is really all about self awareness. So you’ve got to have self awareness on your leadership journey. So what are your blind spots? Where do you get stuck? Are you arrogant? Could you have some pride getting in the way for you. And it’s so incredibly important to keep an eye on your blind spots, we all have them, and to really cultivate self awareness and self reflection so that you are not getting in your own way. And of course, this is also related to the second area, which is leading a community, because when we’re arrogant, it really gets in the way of leading a community effectively. And so those two go hand in hand.
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:48
So first of all, let’s jump in and talk about one of humilities opposites, which is arrogance. And that’s one of the ways that pride shows off at work. So, arrogance, I mean, I could probably share lots of examples. But I’m not going to I’m just going to describe it for you. I don’t want to get myself in trouble here. So arrogance includes those offensive displays of superiority or self importance, you know, that we think about this overbearing pride. And, you know, these are the individuals who tend to impose their personal opinions on others, so maybe those that they work with, maybe anyone they come into contact with, and they tend to be closed to others ideas, so they don’t have much openness to the perspectives, the opinions, the ideas of others. And so, you know, it’s just kind of a one way street with these folks. And they also seek compliments on their expertise, so they are really puffed up like they really want others to see their importance, and they really need others to see them as important. And they have major blind spots, they just they do not get it, they have lots of blind spots. And of course, what we know with the research is that arrogance undermines long term success, it becomes crippling over time. So when you think about arrogance, even think about pride, those two terms for our discussion today are really equal. So you know, just just in case you’re new, you’ve got some confusion about that. So for our purposes, you can think about arrogance, you can think about pride as the same thing. There’s a tendency to brag to take credit for other’s work. So for instance, if they have, you know, if they lead a team, these are the ones that are taking credit for the work of their team, rather than sharing the credit, they tend to be closed minded. They are takers, in a classic sense.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:09
So you know, I think it was Adam Grant, I’m gonna get myself in trouble. I think it was Adam Grant, the great book, Givers and Takers. And these are the classic takers, they are blamers, they fall victim to comparisons. They’re very competitive, but not a healthy form of competition, kind of this toxic form of competition, they’re always sizing other people up, comparing, these are the ones who are going to, you know that they want to know how much money is in your bank account, as compared to theirs. There’s just they’re kind of toxic. And so what the research shows about these folks is that the higher the arrogance, the lower the cognitive ability, so right, like, there’s a whole lot of compensation going on for these folks. And they also tend to have lower self esteem. And generally, and so then they cover this lower self esteem, and by demeaning others, to prove their competence. So like I said, lots of compensation going on for not feeling good enough. And there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. And I’m going to talk about that more as we jump in to some of the research around this.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:39
But when you have an arrogant boss, they tend to shame blame, undermine, and, you know, in a very real way, psychological safety at work is at risk, it may be non existent. And so a culture at work is you know, can really be destroyed by an arrogant boss. And so it’s really a very dangerous situation.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:13
So that’s what we have in the first place, we have arrogance. And then we have this other dynamic that we can sometimes see, which is false humility, and sometimes false humility actually can be a little more dangerous than arrogance, because at least with arrogance, like an arrogant boss is a blunt instrument, right? Like, it’s just, you know, they’re not really fooling anyone. And you know, you can just kind of roll your eyes at them and like, it’s very annoying, and it’s frustrating, and it’s not, it’s not good, but false humility. Sometimes you know, the attacks can be more oblique. And there can be a lot of double talk and mixed messages, and a lot of passive aggressive sort of behavior. And it can be confusing for people. And so what we see is there is pride masquerading in humble words, often to compensate for an acknowledged feelings of inadequacy. So that’s what you see with false humility.
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:19
So if you think about false humility versus genuine humility, so genuine humility is not weak or insecure. Genuine humility is respectful of the strengths of others. Genuine humility lacks personal pretension. Genuine humility is relaxed confidence that doesn’t require external recognition. So there is with genuine humility, there is no need to focus on how to make a big impression on people or how to receive glory and honor and so with genuine humility, all people are seen as equal. And so you know, false humility is really pride masquerading with humble words. And this of course, is to compensate for unacknowledged feelings of inadequacy. So those are some of the, you know, some of the problems that we often encounter when humility is lacking. So the arrogance and the false humility. And so now we want to jump in and really understand humility, and why humility matters.
Dr. Melissa Smith 10:30
So first of all, humility comes from the Latin word humilis, H, U, M, I, L, I, S, which literally means low. And so, um, you know, it can it actually it literally means to hold oneself low, which, you know, doesn’t necessarily sound very great. But I love this perspective from Ken Blanchard, a management expert. And this is what he said about humility. He said, People with humility, do not think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less. And I love that perspective. And I think that’s just spot on. And so people who are humble, they don’t esteem themselves less, although that is the technical meaning of the word, humility. So really, when we think about humility, it’s modesty, its lack of pretension. It’s not necessarily timidity, right? So it’s not shyness. It’s not timidity. So this is the thing to think about with humility, the primary requirement for humility is self acceptance. So think about that for a minute. The primary requirement for humility is self acceptance, if you can accept your own strengths and weaknesses, it is not difficult for you to accept others strengths and weaknesses. So there is an acceptance that comes with that. So humility grows out of a tremendous sense of satisfaction and self respect. And what I would add to that is self compassion. So you can have some compassion for yourself. And that helps you to have compassion for others. And so you approach your relationship to yourself and your relationship to others, free of judgment, free of you know, rejection or approval, but one of openness and a desire to connect.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:40
So now, I want to share with you some of the great research to make the case for why humility matters. And, you know, I think what happens and this is particularly true, unfortunately, for women, so one of the things that, sadly, we have been taught as women especially at work is that we need to be more like men. And that has been, that has been a big disservice to us. And the truth is, humility is by and large, a more female characteristics. So the research is very clear on that I will be talking about that in a minute. And so sometimes for women, if they get the message of like, Hey, we need you to be more aggressive, we need you to be more assertive, we need you to do this. When you do that. Sometimes the message is interpreted as I need, like, I need to abandon humility. Because there’s not a lot of clarity about like, What is the message
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:47
I’m being I’m receiving? And what does that mean? What does that look like? And so part of the message of the podcast today is do not abandon humility. Humility is such a critical leadership trait. It is so incredibly important. And so I’m hoping that this, the discussion today in the podcast, can really empower all of us, right, not just women, but men as well, to embrace humility. And to not only embrace it, but to cultivate it, because it really, really matters. And it will, it will make you a better leader, it will make for stronger organizations, it will increase that psychological safety and make for more productive, more successful organizations. And So let’s jump in to some of the details about that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:44
So first of all, humble employees make better leaders. So this is really interesting. So humble employees are more open to feedback, which makes a lot of sense. So they’re eager to learn. And what that means is that they have more opportunities to grow, and to develop at work. And just, you know, think about that for yourself, you know, you have, you’ve probably worked with some, and some colleagues or some employees at work where they’ve just been defensive, they’ve been guarded, they have not been open to feedback. And you know, they have, they’ve lost opportunities to grow and to advance at work. And so what what this does, because humble employees are open to feedback and learning, they have more opportunities to grow, it increases employee retention, and job satisfaction. And so over time, they advance, and they have more opportunities to lead. So I think that’s really very cool.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:50
So the second point around that, that humble employees make better leaders is that, you know, just like I mentioned, there are gender differences in humility, and they do favor women. So women tend to be more humble than men. Of course, we know not all women are humble, right? We totally know that. But if we were selecting leaders on humility, it would result in more female than male leaders. So because humility is fundamentally a feminine trait. So it’s also of course, one of the traits that’s essential to being a great leader. So without humility, it’s very hard for anyone in charge to acknowledge their mistakes, to learn from experience, to take into account other people’s perspectives, and to be willing to change and get better. So humility, helps us to grow, it helps us to develop. So you know, I talk a lot about the leadership journey. And humility helps us to grow along our leadership journey. And so for you women out there, who you’re like I got, I got a big dose of humility, let that be a strength, because it certainly can be and is on your leadership journey. So if you if you can see that as a strength, and let it be stepping stones to learn and grow along your leadership journey, it will help you it will help you accelerate along that path. So, you know, the other challenge, I think, is when it comes to men who are humble, if they’re not careful, sometimes they can be they can, they can get overlooked for leadership roles when they are humble. And so we don’t want that to happen either. And so part of the work is making sure that this research gets out there because we have biases, right? I mean, we all know that. But sometimes we don’t acknowledge those. And so there are biases around Hey, we need an aggressive, hard hitting kind of leader in your face, to be most effective. And that is absolutely not supported by the research. And so, of course, we want to change those beliefs, and really help everyone understand from HR managers, to executives to organizations, that humility is a critical driver of leadership effectiveness for both men and women. So the second point is that humble leaders are more empathetic. And so this makes a lot of sense, just intuitively right? That if you are more humble, you’re going to be more understanding of other people.
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:10
So I just want to share a couple of thoughts from the research on this. So you know, when we are humble, so if we think about self acceptance, it means you can accept that others are not perfect either. And so this can help you to be more open to others views and perceptions, right? It allows you to be open to correction, and to be gentle with others. So the best leaders are the best listeners. So did you hear that? The best leaders are the best listeners and know when to turn down the noise and make a move. So you know, humble leaders have a genuine desire to discover what others can offer. So where can your people best contribute? And so having a genuine desire to really help people contribute their best gifts, and so you know, receptive to listen before judging. And we really want to encourage that. So humility also goes hand in hand with ethical decision making, which is also, you know, critically important. And humble leaders are able to recognize their own weaknesses, and really focus on giving rather than taking.
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:48
So, classically, humble leaders are givers, not takers, they’re really concerned with contributing rather than taking. And they don’t, they don’t compare, they don’t compete in unhealthy ways. So it’s not that they don’t care about their career, because certainly they do. And there’s, you know, obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that. But they are focused on the whole, they’re focused on making everyone better. And so they take responsibility for their work, and for their role, and they are willing to work patiently. So they are also great role models, so they’re not going to ask others to do what they aren’t willing to do themselves. And so they also, you know, by virtue of their example, promote, and inspire teamwork.
Dr. Melissa Smith 21:36
So Tony Schwartz, who’s the chief executive of The Energy Project, said, the less we spend protecting our own value, the more we can spend creating value in the world. So I really like that perspective, I think that’s a really helpful perspective on that. Okay, so now let’s take a look at the next. The next finding to make the case that humility matters. so humble leaders put their people ahead of them, you know, this, of course, is so important, I mean, your people ahead of you. So it’s really hard. So, you know, if we just think about the arrogant leader, right, it’s so hard to turn a group of people into a high performing team, if your main focus is on yourself, right? If you’re, if you are looking at other people, as competitors, or you’re comparing yourself to them, or you’re taking credit for their work, first of all, no one is going to want to work for you. And no one’s going to want to do their best for you. Because you’ve made yourself the main focus, and you’ve turned it into a competition. And so when people see leadership as a glorified career destination, or they’re self centered, they really like there’s no way to be so self focused, and also Foster, the team’s well being it will just like it, you can’t do both. And so when you can prioritize, when you can prioritize the needs of the team, usually everyone benefits right. So all all boats are lifted, right? And so when we, when we see the arrogant leaders, they usually are choosing themselves over the team. And so then the whole team suffers. And the team feels that right, and they’re always going to feel that. And, and that impact does not go unnoticed. And that’s where we see the corrosion of the team culture.
Dr. Melissa Smith 24:03
So a similar concept is that of servant leadership. So this is a leadership philosophy. And, you know, very similar to the humble leader, which was first developed by Greenleaf in I think it was like in the 70s. But it’s really, you know, the kind of idea of the leaders role is to serve those that he or she leads. And so it’s, I mean, I think it’s very much in keeping with, with this concept that humble leaders put their people ahead of them and this ability to, you know, this, this desire and this willingness to ask the question, what’s in the best interests of those that I lead and so it’s a great perspective, to have And I think most, you know, most caring, humble leaders are often asking this question, they’re often making these types of sacrifices all the time quite naturally for those that they lead. And so the the concept of the servant leadership is very much in keeping with humble leaders putting their people ahead of them. And then the next. The next point for why humility matters is that humble leaders are better teachers. And so if we look to the research on this, and we know that humble leaders can be very gifted with the ability to teach, so first of all, they have moral authority. And you can underestimate the value of that. So I think it’s also really important to point out that humility doesn’t mean that we don’t point out the need for correction. So there’s clarity about right and wrong. Okay. And so, you know, that’s definitely very important. And so there’s always a willingness to clarify and correct. And it is actually this, this quality of character that demands the humble leader to speak out against error.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:40
So there’s no conflict between humility and correction. But the manner of the teaching is what really carries that moral authority. There’s compassion, there’s empathy. The way the teaching happens, is what’s really powerful. And you know, these leaders lead by example, they teach by example. And this is from the chairman of we Pro, he said, and I think this is a great perspective, when we think about the manner of teaching mistakes, it should be forgiven and forgotten, as long as the lessons are remembered. And I think that’s a great perspective. And isn’t that true, whether it’s around parenting, or whether it’s around work, and so humble leaders are better teachers.
Dr. Melissa Smith 27:41
Okay, and the last point, and this is a really important one. As far as why humility matters, humble leaders are confident. And if you remember, at the top of the podcast I talked about, there being a fine line, sometimes between arrogance and confidence. So I want to talk about that a little bit more. confidence and arrogance definitely are not the same thing. But let’s kind of understand that a little bit more, because here is the thing, humility and confidence actually go hand in hand. And so you know, it’s actually humility, that keeps confidence in check, and keeps confidence from turning into arrogance, and turn and keeps confidence from turning into its idiot cousin, arrogance. So that’s from that’s from a research article that I came across, which I’ll link to, but I thought that was really funny that it’s humility, that prevents confidence from turning into its idiot cousin, arrogance. So I really liked that. And, and so we want to pay attention to that. So humility is our check and balance when it comes to confidence. So let’s think about humility. Let’s think about humility and confidence. So when it comes to humility and confidence, these leaders are self aware. They understand their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. So you know, you have strengths, but you also know you have weaknesses. Your confidence is balanced with humility, you accept both your strengths and your will, and your weaknesses. Right. And so as you become more successful, how do you guard against arrogance? And the answer is, there’s two answers here.
Dr. Melissa Smith 29:49
So of course, the big answer is the one that we’ve just talked about, which humility. But also I’m going to add to that. And the research also indicates this is gratitude. So humility and gratitude are what prevent confidence from turning into arrogance. And that’s really the key. And then we have Jason Mendelssohn. He is the Founder and Managing Director of the Foundry Group says, the difference between arrogance and confidence is self awareness. So, you know, I’m really fond of talking about leading with curiosity, I’m always talking about the importance of self awareness. And it is in part, for this reason, you have got to understand your blind spots. You’ve got to be self aware, so you don’t get in your own way. And so I really love that the difference between arrogance and confidence is self awareness. And so what is the check that keeps corporate confidence from moving into arrogance, and it is humility and gratitude. And so, of course, humility really matters. Humility will make you a better leader, it will make your organizations better it will support and cultivate psychological safety. And so I hope that and I hope that you will not leave your humility at home I hope you will bring it to work with you. Because it is such a strength and boy, our world needs more humility, and our world needs humble leaders. Boy, that is the truth right there.
Dr. Melissa Smith 31:45
So make sure you head on over to my website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com forward slash episode dash 77 one more time, that’s www.drmelissasmith.com forward slash episode dash 77. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work in love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
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