Does Humility Have a Role in Leadership?

By Gary Clayton

Humility has been identified as a virtue by many cultures for thousands of years. Yet does it have a place in leadership? Humility, the quality or state of being humble, has some connotations that cause many people to believe it would be tough to be humble and be a leader. Could it be that humility was once valued in a leader, but should be shunned today? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, wrote:

How virtues change! Moses, the greatest Jewish hero, is described as “a very humble man, more humble than anyone on the face of the earth.”

By today’s standards he was wrongly advised. He should have hired an agent, sharpened up his image, let slip some calculated indiscretions about his conversations with G-d and sold his story to the press for six figures.

Or could the answer depend upon our values and how we define humble? Humble is typically defined by a quality or status of being low or inferior - or by what it is not (“not proud or haughty: not arrogant or assertive”) and examining these attributes can give us an answer.

We like leadership that asserts our rights

Can you think of any instances where we don’t like an assertive leader? Usually, being lead by someone who is assertive feels comforting, even reassuring. After all, we want to believe that we will reach our objective by following our leader. So, when we are followers, we want our leader to assert our rights with those who are outside our group. Moses was assertive with the Egyptians, as was Gandhi with the British, both Gandhi and Moses insisting that their people be treated with dignity by the oppressors.

What about being a good listener? We do want our leaders to listen to us and consider our needs before they assert their right to make decisions. We want our leaders to display humility in exercising their leadership over us.

We resent leadership that asserts control over us

What if the leader wants to assert control over the group? Now an interesting shift appears. Some followers like the leader to assert control, while others do not. We see this frequently in the federal government of the United States, especially around times of danger. For instance, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (”9-11″), there were many who felt that all citizens should rally around President George W. Bush and support his war efforts without any discussion. Questioning “why?”, “where”, “how long?” or “what cost?” were viewed as unpatriotic by these followers who would be guardians of the country. This is where his leadership started to erode. Over time, growing numbers of citizens wanted dialog and evidence of a plan rather than his assertion of leadership over them.

Similar problems have been encountered by dogmatic religions such as the Roman Catholic Church. Members of the Faithful have become unfaithful as they were faced with the Church’s assertion of the right to control the members’ beliefs, practices and aspects of their lives. The Protestant Reformation was a major upheaval against the spiritual leader’s assertion of control with less pronounced upheavals occurring even today as liberal and conservative forces seek to assert themselves within - or by leaving - the Church.

We generally resent pride and haughtiness in leaders

Generally, we don’t like it when people think they are better than us, especially when they display it openly. Royalty, dictators and appointed managers may be able to get away with pride, but most of us don’t want to see pride in our leaders.

To many US citizens, the attraction of George W. Bush and Sarah Palin is that they “look like us.” In other words, they don’t seem like they are part of any elite that looks down on members of Middle America. They look and act like people with whom one could share barbeque and beer. Where they have pride, it is in the same values that are held dear by many in Middle America, especially pride of country. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate, was seen as not demonstrating pride of country and seemed to be part of the haughty Eastern elite. Barack Obama, besides not looking like Middle America, was seen as part of a Harvard elite that treated the rural areas with disdain.

Arrogance is resented - unless directed toward others

Who wants to have an arrogant leader? Someone with an attitude of superiority which is “manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions”? Certainly, we don’t want that attitude directed toward us, but what about directing it toward others? Many around the world feel that the US acted arrogantly toward other nations during the George W. Bush Presidency - and there were many in the US who liked that display of arrogance. Now, some other countries are retaliating with their own displays of arrogance toward the US (at least, from a US perspective, it looks like arrogance).

What about in labor unions? Certainly, the union members like to see their leaders presume to be the equals of the corporate management. They’ve had enough of the executive suite treating the workers with disdain, mere human objects by which the corporation transforms materials into finished products. The members appreciate arrogance in their leaders, when directed toward management.

Humility and leadership are about relationship

Does humility have a place in leadership? Remember that leadership and humility are about relationship. Leadership is about having a relationship with your followers. Humility reflects certain qualities that you have in your relation with others. There are many times when it is most appropriate to be true to all four qualities (“not proud or haughty: not arrogant or assertive”). Yet often, we want our leaders to be assertive, to regulate the behaviors of the group and to assert our rights to external bodies. And there are times we want to see our leaders display some measure of pride, haughtiness and arrogance - but not usually toward us.

Yes, humility has a place in leadership, but not always.

Would Moses or Gandhi agree?


  1. arrogance. (2009) In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/arrogant
  2. haughty. (2009) In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/haughty
  3. humble. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved April 19, 2009, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/humble
  4. pride. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved April 19, 2009, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pride
  5. Sacks, J. (2001). Humility: an Endangered Virtue. In Jewish Holiday Online. Retrieved April 20, 2009 from http://www.jewish-holiday.com/humvirtue.html

Gary Clayton is a leadership coach who works with leaders and those who wish to become leaders in business and life.

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