“We all know that humility is a moral virtue” begins a blog by Daniel Coyle. Do we really believe this? If so, then how does it improve being an effective academic, leader, and human being? 

Coyle references a 2016 Washington Post article by Ashley Merryman titled Leaders are more powerful when they’re humble, new research shows. In it, she takes on the topic of humility directly, supporting it with scientific research. Here are some things she found: 

  • True humility is when we have an accurate assessment of both our strengths and weaknesses, and see these in the context of the larger whole. We’re both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. We recognize our weaknesses, which motivate us to grow.
  • Humility helps us embrace ambiguity and the unknown. We even enjoy finding out when we’re wrong. We’re also more willing to accept help when we need it. 
  • Humility builds connections; humble people are more helpful, tolerant, sensitive and accepting of differences. 
  • Humble leaders disperse their power. Yet this doesn’t weaken their authority. Their staff are more motivated and work harder. They know their leader is counting on them–and their input matters–so they rise to the occasion.

Wow, those are some amazing findings. How could all this be true for humility? Let’s look at some definitions to see if they support or contradict these findings.

Dictionaries define being humble as: not proud or arrogant; feeling insignificant, inferior, subservient; low rank, importance, and status; courteously respectful. 

This definition is “all over the place.” Let’s dig in:

  • Arrogance certainly seems contrary to humility. What about pride? Is it antithetical to humility? 
  • Feeling insignificant, inferior, subservient; low rank, importance, and status? Well, those qualities don’t seem to support the scientific findings in Merryman’s article. 
  • Courteously respectful? This seems to support humility. 

The dictionary definition seems to have elements that are contradictory. A better definition comes from Carlos Castaneda’s book Tales of Power. In it, don Juan describes his initial misunderstanding of humility and then a shift in how warriors understand it. 

“A warrior takes his lot, whatever it may be, and accepts it in ultimate humbleness. He accepts in humbleness what he is, not as grounds for regret but as a living challenge. It takes time for every one of us to understand that point and fully live it. I, for instance, hated the mere mention of the word ‘humbleness’. I’m an Indian and we Indians have always been humble and have done nothing else but lower our heads. I thought humbleness was not in the warrior’s way. I was wrong! I know now that the humbleness of a warrior is not the humbleness of a beggar. The warrior lowers his head to no one, but at the same time, he doesn’t permit anyone to lower his head to him. The beggar, on the other hand, falls to his knees at the drop of a hat and scrapes the floor for anyone he deems to be higher; but at the same time, he demands that someone lower than him scrape the floor for him.” (Tales of Power, p19)

Accepting our lot in life requires humbleness. By humbling ourselves, we put ourselves on equal footing with others. We don’t lower our heads to others and don’t allow others to lower their heads to us. That allows us to see each other eye-to-eye, as equals. We each have talents that make us different and unequal. That allows us to serve life in our own unique way. From an internal perspective, though, we’re all equal. We’re all human beings, part of the mystery of life. 

Humility doesn’t make us feel insignificant, inferior, subservient; of low rank, importance, and status. It makes us see each other as equals. Insignificance, importance, etc disappear when we view ourselves and others as equals. Humility, understood as being equals, gives us an accurate assessment of our strengths and weaknesses in the context of the larger world. That also helps us embrace ambiguity and the unknown, which allows us to admit failures and be willing to work with them. It builds connections because our egos aren’t running the show. We’re part of a larger team. Knowing that shifts responsibility to us to work hard to do our part. Humility is a moral virtue. If you want to be powerful, be humble. 

Practice tip: Seeing Eye-to-Eye

Be a warrior, not a beggar, in your interactions with others this week. See each other eyes-to-eye. From an internal human perspective, you’re not more or less important than anyone else. So don’t grovel like a beggar or brag like a saint. 

Rather, be humble. State your views firmly, with kindness. Listen to other’s views with full attention. See the interaction as equals. Doing that will help you work together to solve problems. 

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Geanette

    Wow, this reading hits the nail on the head for me at the moment. I’ve been contemplating humbleness a lot lately. I recently heard a lovely idea in an episode of Russell Brand’s podcast “Under the Skin” that described enlightenment as being “born from humility”. It was also described by the interviewee (I don’t remember his name) that one way to look at humanity’s current state of spiritual/emotional suffering is that from suffering comes humbleness, and from humbleness, well, enlightenment.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article, as usual, Arno.

    I will also leave you with a poem I wrote recently 🙂

    What if I surrender
    to the elements,
    the laws of nature,
    my powerlessness,
    myself?
    What if I soak in humbleness
    until I am reborn
    stronger,
    gentler,
    lighter
    than ever before?

    1. Arno

      Nice Geanette. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and poem. My understanding is that there’s a continuum of awareness that builds from feeling separate to feeling interconnected. We experience an illusion of separateness in that the truer reality is one whole world that is inextricably interconnected, interdependent, and interrelational. Humility tempers our egos and the illusion of separateness. It moves us toward that truer interconnected reality. Be well and interconnected today. a

  2. Greg Leach

    A remarkable essay, wonderful post, beautiful poem, and insightful reply. Thank you both for sharing this morning. The primordial ground of being that gives rise to the 10,000 things and to which our presence here returns; when in it (absence) there is but oneness. Tao, the way. Wu wei, absence action. Tzu jan, occurrence appearing of itself. Travel well, Greg.
    P.S. Recommend/Consider exploring the works of the author and translator, David Hinton

    1. Arno

      Hi Greg, I’ll check out Hinton. Thanks for suggesting. a

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