On Leadership Communication- Humility, You can get far without it, but don’t expect many supporters

WHEN DAVID NEELEMAN was fired from Southwest Airlines, he lost what he thought was a "dream job." The person who had the unpleasant task of asking him to leave was Ann Rhoades. When Neeleman started his own airline a few years later, he hired two of his colleagues from Southwest: John Owen as CFO and you guessed it, Rhoades as head of HR. Rhoades told Fast Company, "David didn’t understand the nuance of the organization. He needed to walk, not run."


Today Neeleman runs what might be considered the world’s "coolest" airline, Jet Blue. He may not be walking, but he is certainly more humble. Humble enough to understand that if he wanted to grow his new enterprise, he could learn from those who had once been his colleagues.

Humility just might be one of the most overlooked attributes in leadership, but it just might be one of the most important attributes a leader can possess. Humility is a strand between leader and follower that underscores one common element: our humanity.

Humility is Humanness

Humility is not taught in management courses or many leadership courses, for that matter. And you can understand why. Organizations want their leaders to be visionary, authoritative, capable and motivational. Nowhere does it say anything about being "humble."

Still, most successful leaders understand that a sense of humility is essential to winning hearts and minds. Humility is a visible demonstration of concern and compassion, as well as authenticity. Leaders who are to be followed must be leaders who understand the human condition, especially their own. Those in authority who are blind to their inner selves are likely to do stupid things, like invade Russia (Napoleon), invade France and Russia (Hitler) and invade Kuwait (Saddam).

On a less serious note, managers out of touch with reality put their own interests first — Ken Lay, Richard Scrushy and Dennis Kozlowski come to mind. None of these supposed leaders demonstrated one iota of humility, and, in the process, ran their businesses into the ground. By contrast, leaders such as Colleen Barrett of Southwest Airlines, along with her leadership team, have created a culture of humility, one that springs from concern for others as a means of building a people-centric organization.

Humility is an approach to life that says "I don’t have all the answers and I want your contribution." For some people, that is no problem. For people at the top, that may seem akin to saying, "I am naked." Or close.

Humility is a form of nakedness, but not a form of exhibitionism. Rather, it’s a demonstration of acceptance as well as resolve. Humility is acceptance of individual limitations — I cannot do it alone — coupled with a sense of resolve to do something about it — I will enlist the help of others. That is the essence of leadership.

Humility in leadership is something that needs to be communicated. Here are some suggestions

Invite feedback. One of the operative principles of coaching is giving feedback. Managers need to turn the tables on themselves and invite their employees to give them feedback, too. But before they can do this, they must spade the ground. Asking for feedback from subordinates without proper preparation is akin to pulling a knife on them. Of course they will tell you what you want to hear. Leaders must make it safe for their people to offer criticism as well as advice. When done properly, it builds trust.

Encourage dissent. Part of feedback is dissent, a disagreement with the central point of view. For leaders, dissent is a good gut-check as well as a lesson in humility. As with feedback, when you make it safe for people to voice a discordant note, you get other points of view. Accept dissent as a form of humility.

Turn failures into lessons. Mistakes give rise to the need for humility. Instead of trying to cover mistakes up, leaders need to publicize them. Not for the sake of retribution, but for the sake of education. According to the Wall Street Journal, Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical company, took a second look at a cancer drug that had failed in human trials. Researchers at Lilly understand that the scientific method involves a degree of trial and error as well as failure analysis. The result is that mistakes can be turned into successes; the failed drug was modified and is now used to treat another form of cancer.

Expect humility in others. Humility breeds humility. A good example of this practice is a Buddhist monastery. There all the monks work in support of the community and in pursuit of a oneness with their humanity and their spirituality. A sense of personal humility is a key to self-understanding that in turn leads to greater awareness of the wholeness of life. In other words, if you show humility, you can ask and expect others on your team to do the same.

And No One Said it Was Easy

Granted, humility does not inspire people to wake up in the morning and cry out, "Gosh, I feel humble today." In fact, too much humility can erode self-esteem. Ego is essential to leadership because it breeds self-confidence.

If anything, leaders must demonstrate confidence, a sense that they can do the job. What leaders need to realize is humility need not be oppositional to confidence but rather supportive of it. Confidence is not simply about self, but can grow to embrace the entire team. That is, leaders can, and should, feel more confident knowing they have the support and the resources of others with which to do the job. And if the team is not right, then it is the leader’s job to make it so through job training, personal development and augmentation of people with other skills.

Humility, however, is the grace note of leadership. One of the most humble leaders in the history of human expedition is Sir Ernest Shackleton. Although his voyage to Antarctica ended in disaster, he brought all of his men home safely. While he led from strength, he served with humility — he sought to make his team comfortable and assured throughout every phase of the long journey back to civilization.

Humility is admission of humanity, a sense that leader and follower are in this together. That deepens a sense of trust. Better to admit a shortcoming, or a limitation, than to lead blindly onto the unknown.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as non-profits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of four books on leadership; the latest is Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders (McGraw-Hill). Readers are welcome to visit his leadership resource website at

Posted in:

Sorry, we couldn't find any posts. Please try a different search.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.