What is Military Humility?

[May 19, 2020]  A few days ago, I was asked by a contributor to my website to write an article on military humility.  Humility, as a military leadership trait, has been in the news for only about a year.1,2  Even the U.S. military has had to eventually recognize that abuse of authority by a few senior officers is having a negative impact, and something had to be done.  Introducing humility was a way to encourage learning, reduce toxic leadership, improve a positive workplace, and show that leaders do care about their troops.

At first, I thought the contributor’s request was a joke.  He has been a regular in leadership forums, and his analysis always seems to be on point.   I’d never thought of humility in terms of being specific to the military; it is not.  But he still had a point.  What was it about successful leadership that is tied to being humble?

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” – Proverbs 11:2 New International Version (NIV)

Outside the military, there is extensive thinking about “humility.”  Yet, we often think of humility in terms of submission, quietness, lowness, and thoughts of inadequacy.  This quote from Proverbs 11:2 seems to confirm this view.  I disagree with that interpretation, but I’ll get back to that thinking in a moment below.

What I believe is there needs to be a leadership balance in core traits.  Humility means to recognize one’s inadequacies in skills, knowledge, and behavior but not to dwell on it.  Other “soft” factors make for a good leader, like integrity, openness, honesty, and agreeableness.

 “A leader with the right level of humility is a willing learner, maintains accurate self-awareness, and seeks out others’ input and feedback,” – Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22.

A reading of Proverbs and other religious and ancient philosophical ideas reaffirms that humans must be in proper mental “balance” if we are a good person and a successful leader.  In Proverbs 11:1 (rarely quoted but relevant nonetheless), it states, “The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him.”  While a bit cryptic to the modern reader, humanness can only mean balancing our social traits (like humility with honesty), not extremes of thinking or acting.  It also means we do not and cannot be the end-all in anything.

Humility means learning from those around us, that we live and work in a human system shaped by others, and that we have the innate responsibility to help others.  We are all liable to err and that we can learn from the mistakes of others.  Think not that humility as a weakness, but that it is the metaphorical blood supply of our great talents.


  1. While humility is being discussed only recently in the military, I wrote about it as a leader trait in late 2013. My article Characteristic #23: Humility received almost zero attention and got very few website search-engine hits.  And the article got no comments.  Recently, several military websites and doctrinal publications used my thinking to push the idea among military leaders.
  2. An article at Military.com by Corie Weathers was published, titled “The Army Has Introduced a New Leadership Value. Here’s Why It Matters” https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/12/27/army-has-introduced-new-leadership-value-heres-why-it-matters.html
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “What is Military Humility?

    1. old warrior

      Right, kicking butt today with Gen. Satterfield. This is what I like to see and read. Made me think!

  1. Maureen S. Sullivan

    Excellent beginning of a series that links the most important of human leader traits. I’m looking forward to reading more in the near future.

    1. Max Foster

      Thanks Maureen, and I agree also that any upcoming linkage of these human leader characteristics is very welcome. It is not just okay to ‘list’ a bunch of characteristics but to also ‘link’ them and ‘show’ how they interact to make us better family members, citizens in our community, and great leaders.

    2. Doug Smith

      Good points Maureen and Max. I look forward to them also. Maybe we could make suggestions on the logic. I k now that Max regularly does this. What a great time to be reading this blog.

  2. Roger Yellowmule

    If we were to go back in time to interact with people before the 15th century, I think we would find the way people thought would be seriously different when compared to today. Modern folks think “scientifically” and by that I mean about ‘things’ and how those things interact with other objects. In the far past, people thought about ‘actions’ and how we got along with others. In my opinion, that is why there was so much written about humility in the olden days.

    1. Eric Coda

      Well written, Roger and thanks for taking us back in time and how the way we THINK has changed over the generations. That is a monumental shift that should be studied.

  3. Lynn Pitts

    “Have the humility to learn from those around you.” by John C. Maxwell
    There are hundreds of great quotes on ‘humility’ because, IMO, of the importance of one’s having humility to get along better with people. This idea also of tying humility to truth & honor should be a priority here in this leadership website. I would be interested in reading more about the connection and about examples from real life.

  4. Greg Heyman

    Thanks for another spot-on article about an important subject (humility).

    1. Watson Bell

      Yes, good one. That’s all of keep coming back here. Short, to the point, and spot-on analysis and new ideas.

    2. Gil Johnson

      Yes, I enjoyed it too. I would recommend a future article on Lawrence of Arabia. I understand he died on this date May 19, 1935 after a motorcycle accident 6 days earlier. We lost a great man.

  5. Kenny Foster

    Hi Gen. Satterfield, I’m very honored that you took my suggestion to publish an article on military humility. Job well done! It is great to see that you also read the forums and take on our challenges. Keep up the great works.

    1. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      Hey there Kenny. Congrats!! I’m impressed. You seem to have some “in” with Gen. Satterfield. I do believe he has commented also in the past on some of your comments. I’m in the company of greatness.

    2. Albert Ayer

      Congratulations Kenny, you’ve done it again with your pithy comments.

    3. Otto Z. Zuckermann

      Hey, great job Kenny. Please make more suggestions and let’s see how they work out here. I love this website on leadership and Gen. Satterfield is obviously reading our comments. BTW, thanks Gen. Satterfield for both your site and for reading what we write.

  6. Wendy Holmes

    Top-notch article this morning, Gen. Satterfield. Great to see you took a recommendation from one of our own. ?


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