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The unexpected secret to strong leadership? Humility.

|2019-11-04T17:54:35-05:00October 31st, 2019|

One of Socrates’s best-known claims was that “I know that I know nothing.” It’s no fluke that this quote has survived more than 2,000 years or that Socrates is nearly synonymous with wisdom; humility is an important ingredient to mastery, no matter what the discipline.

Take, for example Liv Boeree, champion of the World Series of Poker and the 2010 European Poker Tour. “You have to be prepared to eat humble pie a lot as a poker player,” she says in her Big Think Edge video. “Because you will mess up — it’s a fact of the game… Humility is probably the most important thing if you want to master a game, particularly a game like poker, but to be honest, any game, or anything in life.”

Play the game of life with humility

A series of studies on intellectual humility back this up. Researchers have found that the more general knowledge one has, the more intellectually humble one is — that is, the more willing one is to acknowledge when they don’t know something, the more comfortable they are with their own intellectual shortcomings, the more willing they are to reflect on personal weaknesses, and so on. Why would this be the case? Well, before you can learn anything, you have to be capable of realizing that you have something to learn.

Not only will intellectual humility ensure that you catch the lessons that others overlook, humility is also associated with being a better leader. In fact, humble leaders tend to inspire more teamwork, to be better listeners, and to encourage team members to focus on goals better. People working under humble leaders tend to enjoy their work more and perform better as well.

Humility is a powerful factor in a team-based environment. Psychologists argue that part of what makes people committed to working together is the absence of any fear of exploitation. The humbler somebody is seen, the easier it is to commit to working with them. Conversely, the more selfish somebody appears to be, the more likely it is they’re willing to exploit their team members for their own ends, and the less others will want to work with them.

Humility also makes people mentally and physically healthier. It has been shown to reduce the impact of stressful life events, which is a clear benefit to mental health, and the reduced stress and greater social bonds resulting from humility also contribute to greater physical health.

Be a humble leader

One of the more compelling endorsements of humility comes from a group of IBM employees who were looking to identify the quality that made for the most successful leaders in their organization. In the past, IBM possessed a significantly top-down organizational model, making it all the more crucial that they had capable and effective leadership. As part of their advice for aspiring leaders, these IBM employees wrote:

We notice that by far the lion’s share of world-changing luminaries are humble people. They focus on the work, not themselves. They seek success — they are ambitious — but they are humbled when it arrives. They know that much of that success was luck, timing, and a thousand factors out of their personal control. They feel lucky, not all-powerful. Oddly, the ones operating under a delusion that they are all-powerful are the ones who have yet to reach their potential… [So] be ambitious. Be a leader. But do not belittle others in your pursuit of your ambitions. Raise them up instead. The biggest leader is the one washing feet of the others.