Humility is not a likely response when recalling the qualities of a leader. This is especially the case in the military when leaders are tasked with challenging missions that are often time-critical, have limited resources and can require leaders to act decisively. However, humility may be a leader’s competitive advantage when drawing upon the soldiers’ spirit and determination. This essay will examine what humility is and introduce the view that it is an elusive attribute. Finally, the paper will highlight the power that a humble leader can access in the changing leadership environment.

What is a humble leader?

After analysis of historical accounts of humility, Devenish-Meares (2016) draws the conclusion that humility a force-enhancer.  He reviewed the theological, philosophical and social psychology origins and determined ‘humility [as] a leader’s choice to stand back and make sense of reality’. This phrase alone does not provide a clear description of what a humble leader is but reinforces the essential need for a leader to consciously be humble. Morris, Brotheridge, and Urbanski (2005) capture ancient Greek philosophy and early Buddhist and Taoist teachings that see humility as a search for excellence in behaviour. These ancient and religious philosophers saw humility as a virtue that could lead to excellence and form a path less concerned with one’s self but one that connects with a greater good. In a military context, a humble leader must have foremost concern for the officers and soldiers he or she leads. Doty and Gerdes (2000) highlight the positive outcomes of humility where military leaders can confidently engender trust, loyalty and collaborative effort to achieve superior results.

With this said, With this said, how can humility be recognised?

  • A humble leader enhances others and not his or her own position. This does not mean the leader should be submissive or feel threatened by a more knowledgeable or skilled person. Rather a leader should draw on the ideas and strengths of others.
  • Valuing the contributions of other without the bias of the leaders ensures a leader can accurately assess his or her own abilities and achievements while keeping them in perspective.
  • In this contemporary time, reflection and self-appraisal have emerged as key self-development tools for leaders. Through this process, Tangney (2000) emphasises the ’ability to forget the self and to appreciate the value of all things’.
  • Morris, Brotheridge, and Urbanski (2005) identify three dimensions that make up humility: self-awareness, openness and transcendence.
    • Self-awareness: Leaders must understand their strengths and weaknesses and be objective when evaluating their abilities and limitations.
    • Openness: Being self-aware and honest, a leader must recognise there are situations beyond his or her control. Therefore, leaders must be open to new ideas and ways of thinking, especially when this presents as an opportunity to learn from others.
    • Transcendence: Transcendence is the aspiration and realisation that learning or a new experience may allow a leader to surpass his or her usual limits. Reflecting on this will allow the leader to gain a more informed perspective. With this, comes judgement and wisdom.

Humility as an elusive attribute Humility must not be confused with other attributes such as modesty, shyness or submissiveness. Often, people see humility as a trait that deflects praise from them and attributes it to others, but this is not accurate. Peterson & Seligman (2004) describe humility as internally focused and modesty as externally focused. That is, a humble leader truly believes that the work of the team with its strengths and weaknesses achieves the outcome. In contrast, a modest leader still thinks he or she is the one responsible for the successful outcome but redirects some of the praise to acknowledge others. While there may be nothing wrong with this, the purpose of this paper is to underscore the power of being humble. A leader whose authentic values include a deep humility will not shift authority, accountability and responsibility but will empower the team with greater capacity without the leader being the centre of attention. So, how can humility become a personal core value? Generally, a person is not born humble. Rather, situations that expose a person to extreme situations become triggers that promote a disposition that nurtures humility. In effect, after such an event, a person will develop a deep gratitude for what he or she lost, may have lost or experienced. Gaining this perspective is like looking through a different lens and may arise from:

  • The manner in which praise is offered to children when growing up
  • A near-death situation
  • An extreme life-threatening event
  • Spiritual realisation
  • Situations where ’luck‘ plays a role in a positive outcome
  • Humble mentors, coaches and role models

These events do not make a person humble. It is reflection that provides perspective, judgment and an internal appreciation that circumstances are bigger than oneself. Applying this allows a leader to display humility with other leaders experiences, so the team can draw on the power of being valued. This introduces the notion of Servant Leadership, where a humble leader has the internal focus to serve the organisation or team as opposed to leading it (Sendjaya and Sarros, 2002). Humility is an antidote for those leaders who allow their egos to swell and allow arrogance, unmeasured competitive spirit or unbridled bluster to impair thoughtful, gauged decisions. As listed above, the medicine to introduce humility is not readily available, so instead, leaders may learn to be modest, become critical of themselves, or feel threatened by others. Having said that, Morris, Brotheridge, and Urbanski (2005) show humility can be learnt through self-awareness, openness and transcendence.

The changing leadership environment

Contemporary leadership styles have a greater focus on interpersonal relationship skills with an emphasis on influencing the intrinsic commitment of people instead of enforced compliance. Murch (2018) highlights the importance of aligning a leader’s style with the requirements of the situation, resulting in a multi-dimension leadership style. Authentic leadership is an emerging style that relies on impartial self-examination, understanding a leader’s fallibility and emphasising the growth of others. These are hallmarks of humility and can be recognised in most leadership styles if the leader sincerely cares about building relationships on mutual trust. In turn, this can create enduring loyalty that fosters an enviable team identity. Ironically, a humble leader does not seek to do this, but it can be the unintentional result of a humble leadership climate. Certainly, humility is honourable but it can also present risks. Owens, Rowatt, and Wilkins (2011) suggest that humble leaders may constrain their teams and not push them to excel or take risks. They also propose that extraordinary performance is not within the realms of humility because humble leaders can be too in-tuned with self and others and err on the side of what the team can comfortably achieve. Furthermore, their research supports that humble leaders can be seen as unassertive or lack initiative causing them to not receive due recognition. These observations introduce a caution to leaders using soft leadership skills, especially in situations of great pressure. Doty and Gerdes (2000) concede that humility is not required to be a military leader but they clearly rule out arrogance and cynicism (the opposite traits of humility) as compatible with being an impressive leader. Not all leaders will be great, but an Army needs leaders who model responsibility and accountability to people, commitment to support the team and a selfless view of service. These are behaviours that exemplify humility.


Many qualities, other than humility, come to mind when seeking to identify what makes a successful leader. However, a humble leader is self-aware, open to the views of others and able to transcend to an improved self. Usually, humility is undervalued because it appears to not deliver decisive, forthright and aggressive outcomes in challenging situations. In contrast, the humble leader empowers the team by appreciating strengths and weaknesses and building trust through a collaborative approach. Although humility presents some risks, the changing leadership environment expects leaders to be alert to the situational needs of leadership.