Leading with Humility

Excerpt from “Start with Humility: Lessons from America’s Quiet CEOs on How to Build Trust and Inspire Followers” by Merwyn A. Hayes, Ph.D., and Michael Comer, D.M. (The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership).

By Merwyn A. Hayes, Ph.D., and Michael Comer, D.M.

Humility is one of the most important attributes of leadership, because it helps connect the leader to followers through their common bond of humanity. Leaders who have humility build trust, and trust is the essence of leadership. Of course leadership requires more than just humility—it also requires vision, competence, communication, courage, and many other traits. These traits are important, but understanding humanity and reacting with humility can directly affect trust (1). And trust is essential to successful leadership.

A question we are often asked is: “Can humility be learned or is it innate?” This is a tough question. We began by assuming that humility is very much a product of heredity and environment and that it comes more naturally to some people than to others. However, as we examined our experience in working with leaders in companies such as Federal Express, Alcoa, Gulfstream, Westinghouse, General Electric, and Bank of America, and our interviews with the humble leaders we identified for this book, we realized there is a set of defined behaviors that can be learned, implemented, and sustained. We will share these with you as part of this book and challenge you to examine yourself to see how you can better apply these behaviors to your own leadership. The last section of this book will look specifically at application and sustainability of humble behaviors.

You are probably not going to wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll be humble today” or “I just read this book and presto I became that humble leader my team always wanted.” Many of you may argue that if humble behaviors can be learned, it will cheapen the concept of humility as a virtue. After all who wants “cheap humility?” You may say, “If one were humble, why would they need or want to learn humble behaviors?” Besides, you may say, “I really don’t care if I am humble or not; after all I am the leader” (Note: This statement probably indicates the importance of continuing to read this book).

Of course, there are leaders who are not at all humble who behave in arrogant self-serving ways and still get results. You can name many from the headlines of today’s newspapers and the SEC reports of bankrupt companies. However, we would argue that these leaders “push and pull” followers rather than “lead and motivate” and that in the long run, followers who are inspired and led will perform more effectively. People want a leader they trust, and humility is one way to build trust. Jim Collins’ research in both “Good to Great” and “Built to Last” found that leaders who built greatness had a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will” and that leaders with “gargantuan personal egos” were more likely to contribute to the demise or mediocrity of companies in the long run (2).

Humility often gets a bad name. It is affiliated with humiliation, lack of confidence, or the proverbial door mat—where anyone can walk all over you. All you have to do is talk to our five humble leaders for more than a few minutes and you will see this is not at all the case.

Our definition of humility comes from the ancient Greeks. The original Greek word tapeinovß literally means “not rising far from the ground.” The original meaning of the English word “humble” refers to the Latin word hummas, which like the ancient Greek also means“of the ground or earth.” (3) The word has incorrectly evolved to mean having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits; marked by the absence of self-assertion or self-exaltation. Unfortunately most of the emphasis of the definition has been placed on absence of self-assertionnot on absence of self-exaltation (4). Because of this emphasis, humility and leadership often have been seen as opposites. How can one be an effective leader and exercise humility?

Humility as a leadership virtue does notmean lack of asserting oneself but more of how one asserts himself or herself; where they place their focus; and whether it is it on “their” accomplishments or on the “team’s” accomplishments?

The original meaning of “close to the ground” can reinforce the leader’s attitude of not working from the “ivory tower” or of being so “high up the organization” they cannot ask for feedback from employees or engage others. General Fred Franks, one of the humble leaders featured in this book, provides many good examples of this behavior. For instance, Franks specifically wanted to hear from his non-commissioned officers before making major moves and is well known for being close to the troops.

The definition of humility as “close to the ground and the people”is one with which we are widely familiar. In our many years of executive coaching and organizational consulting, we have come to realize that the most effective leaders are those “close to the ground”—they have their ear to the customer and are consistently in tune with employees. When participants in our leadership workshops were asked to describe the behaviors of the person they have worked with whom they admired most as a leader, frequently the responses were, “down to earth,” “looks out for me and the team,” “gives recognition to the team,” and “really listens to me.” All behaviors related to humility.

We were privileged through getting to know a variety of humble leaders in our research for this book to learn more about the concept of the humble leader from them. One example from our research is Joe Lee, part of the founding team of Red Lobster and Red Lobster’s first manager in its first restaurant in Lakeland, FL. He assumed increasing responsibilities at Red Lobster and then General Mills, which purchased the fledgling chain in 1970. Lee was president and CEO of General Mills Restaurants and then served as Darden Restaurants chairman and CEO until 2004. Darden Restaurants operates more than 1,300 restaurants in North America, employing more than 140,000 people who serve 300 million meals annually. Others, such as Linda Combs, we have been privileged to feature in this book. Linda rose from a small farm in western North Carolina to become a public school educator and to serve three U.S. Presidents, and recently retired as controller of the Office of Management and Budget. Or perhaps General Frederick Franks, who after 35 years in the military as commander of the troops during three major conflicts, identifies the core of what a humble leader is with his simple leadership mantra: “To lead is to serve. The spotlight should be on the led and not the leader.”


(1) John Baldoni, “On Leadership Communication: Humility,” June 2004. DarwinOnline, available at: www.darwinmag.com/read/060104/baldoni.html.

(2) Jim Collins, Good to Great(New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 39. 

(3) Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Oxford Dictionary of English(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), available at: <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t23.e...

(4) Ibid, Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press, available at http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t23.e27056

Excerpt from “Start with Humility: Lessons from America’s Quiet CEOs on How to Build Trust and Inspire Followers” by Merwyn A. Hayes, Ph.D., and Michael Comer, D.M. (The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership). The book is available from www.startwithhumility.comor amazon.com. For daily information, advice and tips on leadership, follow The Hayes Group International on Facebook.

Merwyn A. Hayes, Ph.D., is CEO and President of The Hayes Group International, Inc., a consulting firm focusing on people issues within organizations. The company was established in 1976 and has served more than 1,500 organizations. Hayes has personally worked with more than 500 organizations. Much of his work centers on leadership development, team development, merger assessment and facilitation, and executive coaching. As a coach he has worked with executives from a cross section of industries and cultures: athletic coaches (pro and college); corporate chairman and presidents; general managers/managing directors; leaders for medical and legal organizations; and unit leaders of all kinds. Hayes previously was the Associate Dean of the Babcock Graduate School of Management at Wake Forest, responsible for the Executive MBA and the Center for Management Development. His other books include “THE BELIEF SYSTEM: the Secret to Motivation and Improved Performance” (co-authored with Thad Green) and “GIVE TO GET LEADERSHIP: the Secret of the Hidden Paycheck” (co-authored with Richard Huseman).

Michael D. Comer, D.M., is consulting partner for The Hayes Group International, Inc. His concentration is in the areas of organizational development, leadership development, and training development and delivery. Comer has more than 25 years of consulting experience. This includes six years at Andersen Consulting (Accenture) in Washington, D.C. as a change management leader, as well as 10 years of independent consulting at Ameritech (AT&T), Pharmacia, Upjohn, Computer Science Corporation, Digital Equipment Corporation, and KPMG Peat Marwick.

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