[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.
- 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.
- 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