I want to define humility by listing three defining characteristics that are true of humble people. I hope that by constructing an accurate definition of humility, we will begin to recover the crucial role that it plays in our leadership, on our teams, and in the world.
Humble people have an accurate self-awareness
In an era of selfie sticks and Facebook, we are more aware of ourselves than ever before. The concept of ‘self’ is constantly on the forefront our minds as we design our lives – and our social media pages – to reflect the pristine picture of how we want others to perceive us.
In contrast, humble people don’t feel the need to paint a perfect picture of an “ideal life” for others. They have the ability to zoom out and objectively assess the merits or shortcomings of their character. Humble people embody a disposition that is less concerned with the image they portray and more concerned with the quality of their work, the effectiveness of their lives, and the content of their character.
Humble People Think of Themselves Less
As C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic book, Mere Christianity:
“The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” (C.S. Lewis)
Humble people refuse to play the “self-esteem” game. They are not self-deprecating or self-congratulatory, but instead they are self-forgetful. Meaning, they don’t think less of their accomplishments by putting themselves down, nor do they inflate their own ego by elevating themselves over others. True humility is characterized by a quiet confidence and a genuine interest in others. Pastor Tim Keller said it best when he said humble people are like ‘toes’:
“The truly gospel-humble person is a self-forgetful person whose ego is just like his or her toes. It just works. It does not draw attention to itself. The toes just work; the ego just works. Neither draws attention to itself.” (Tim Keller)
Humble People have True Freedom
As New York Times Author David Brooks put it:
“Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry.” (David Brooks)
Humble people have true freedom because they have learned to rid themselves of the cumbersome shackles of comparison. Achieving superiority over others is not a box that humble people are trying check. Instead, humble people have set themselves free from the need to feed their ego as it relates to comparing their accomplishments to those around them.
The burden of comparative score-keeping frees the humble person to concentrate on improving their own performance, character, and moral integrity instead of wasting their energy worrying about how they stack up against others.
To summarize, the virtue of humility matters primarily for two reasons. First, humility gives us the freedom to become the leaders we were created to be instead of the person we believe others think we should be. Second, true humility leads to wisdom.Wisdom helps us become better leaders. Again, we turn to author David Brooks for helping us grasp the how wisdom helps us win as leaders:
“wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.” (David Brooks)
Great leaders have cultivated the wisdom to adeptly handle their own ignorance, uncertainty, and limitations. They are able to navigate the inevitable pitfalls of their own pride because they have wisdom to guide their path. Ultimately, humility is the key that unlocks our ability to govern ourselves, lead others with wisdom, and navigate the inevitable blind-spots within our own character.
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