February 17, 2016

The topics I write about under H in the A to Z are Hiring, Holidays, Hours, Human Resource Management and Humility. I think that people were rather surprised at the Book Launch when I chose to read an extract from Humility. It’s the not subject that instantly comes to mind when one is thinking about managers or leaders but I think it’s a valuable virtue.


 Managers and leaders can have many good characteristics but I want to spend a couple of minutes on humility because one of my favourite writers on management, Chris Grey (2005), recommends it as a useful quality. Why? Because the world is an uncertain place and if we take on the responsibility of managing people we need to have care for them and not believe that our voice is the only one that should be heard. Sinclair (2007, p.30) makes the often unstated point that while conventional wisdom is that leadership is a good thing, it can also be a bad thing. Humility may help overcome tendencies to the dark side such as narcissism and grandiosity.

Humility in the workplace can be defined as:

“…a capability to evaluate success, failure, work, and life without exaggeration…humility enables leaders to distinguish the delicate line between such characteristics as healthy self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-assessment, and those of over-confidence, narcissism and stubbornness” (Vera & Rodriquez Lopez 2004 quoted in Sarros et al 2006, p. 99).

In their analysis of effective leaders in the US corporate world, Collins & Porras (1994) came up with a list of qualities that were somewhat unexpected given the traditional view of leadership. Their successful leaders were described as softly spoken, gentle, good listeners, modest, thoughtful, serious, rather shy – and humble.

Servant leadership is a model which seems to fit well with mission-driven non-profit organisations. The characteristics of such a servant-leader include “asking questions in order to seek solutions, rather than giving orders; earning respect and understanding through engagement; acting as a broker or match-maker, rather than being at the central point of all decision making; and seeking to find real common understanding between people rather than just wanting consensus to deliver outcomes “ (Norbury 2010, p.53). Being a servant to others takes considerable humility. Even if that’s not your preferred management style it’s still worth noting one of Drucker’s (1990, p.23) leadership competencies: “willingness to realize how unimportant you are compared to the task.”

One of the managers I enjoyed working with in the past, Peter Brokensha (2007), talked about humility as a quality, along with empathy, that had helped him come to wisdom over three quarters of a century. He learnt this initially through his mother who as always humble and considerate of the needs of others and then through his first job at a petrol refinery:

“Although I had just finished a university degree in engineering I soon realised I didn’t really know much at all about the important things; about people and work and getting things done. I soon found that I could always learn something from everyone no matter what their position was”(p. 155).

In Sarros’ el al (2006) book on the character of leadership, a corporate director offers good advice on putting humility into practice:

“I think humility is really important. I know that I don’t know it all, and I know that for all the things I get right, I’ll get an equal number of things wrong, and stuff them up. You can learn from your mistakes, and that comes back to the importance of honesty. You can be honest when you stuff up and say, I didn’t quite get that right or I didn’t quite understand what you said” (p. 106).

You can improve your humility by facing up to your weaknesses, acknowledging your failings, taking feedback graciously and remembering that you are there to serve the stakeholders and the arts makers.


Brokensha, P 2007, Getting to Wisdom Slowly, Peacock Publications, Adelaide

Collins, JC & Porras, JI 1994, Built to last: successful habits of visionary companies, HarperBusiness, New York

Drucker, PF 1990, Managing the Nonprofit Organization, HarperCollins, New York

Grey, C 2005, A very short, fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about studying organisations, Sage Publications, London

Norbury, C 2010, ‘Relationships are at the heart of good cultural leadership’ in Kay, S & Venner, S (eds), A Cultural Leader’s Handbook, Creative Choices, London, 50-57

Sarros, J, Cooper, BK, Hartican, AM &Barker, CJ 2006, The Character of Leadership, John Wiley & Sons, Milton QLD

Sinclair, A 2007, Leadership for the Disillusioned, Allen & Unwin, Sydney

Vera, D & Rodriquez Lopez, A 2004, ‘Strategic virtues: humility as a source of competitive advantage’ Organisational Dynamics, 33(4): 393-408