Character and Personality: Humility

humility When conducting workshops on complex projects, a common question is, “What characteristics must a leader have?” Let’s cover several of the important character traits. The first is humility.

Conversations around this word can be all over the map. When asked for synonyms for humility, responses have included “submissive,” “quiet,” “unassertive,” and “cautious” – to name a few. Let’s see if some clarity can be brought to the situation.

“To Serve”

We can take a peek at humility by looking at samurai. “Samurai” means “to serve.” Samurai were humble. They knew their limits and worked within them. Get the picture? If not, maybe it will become clearer by looking at one of my favorite quotes, which happens to be anonymous:

“There are two types of people in the world – those who are humble and those who are about to be.”

Humility has less to do with affect (how we look to the outside world, e.g., quiet) and more to do with awareness; specifically awareness of one’s limitations. One reason that teams develop is humility. Together we can work beyond our individual limits. Being humble, we can also pay attention to real boundaries and calculate how to push on them.


This all sounds well and good. But isn’t there an element of truth ringing in the words “submissive,” “unassertive,” etc.? No.

The meaning of humility may become clearer when compared to the word it is commonly confused with – humiliation. There are two parts to the meaning of each word. The first part is the same: “To go to a small place.” It is in the second part where the words differ dramatically. With humility I choose to go to that small place. With humiliation… you probably have guessed it… I am pushed there by someone else!

Nice People Apparently Doing Bad Things

These definitions are morally neutral. Let me explain. You might know of a couple going through the following situation: One member (A) of a couple gets the job offer from heaven. The problem is that it requires uprooting and moving to another city. This can humiliate the other partner (B), who might ask, “What about me?”

Assuming A is free of any malicious thoughts of manipulating B, B still is saddled with an unfairness that needs to be addressed. The challenge of interdependence is present. B is going to have to take a risk in order to work interdependently with A.

Fast-Paced Organizations

This issue shows up on the job on an almost daily basis. When a company says they are fluid, flexible, fast-paced and will work to meet or exceed customer needs, a set of questions comes to mind. For instance: “Is the leader humble?” and “Does the leader watch for potentially humiliating situations and work with those who get pushed there?”

The principles by which the leader lives come into play. In navigating through change management, there is a need for the leader to be steadfast, open, and available. The leader stays humble and stable – serving as a reference point for those who are feeling a bit humiliated, as well as those who are getting to stay on their chosen path. Both groups of people are part of the success.

The Payoff

It is hard to overstate how much humility, combined with interdependence, contributes to creating a powerful team. Trust is present, which fuels a feed-forward (instead of a looking-back-and-wondering-what-happened) frame of mind. The awareness of limits leads to better decision-making, so not only is the team moving faster, but there is also a higher probability of sustaining success.

So, the next time humble pie is being served, consider asking for a second slice.

Gary Monti has over 30 years experience providing change- and project management services internationally. He works at the nexus between strategy, business case, project-, process-, and people management. Service modalities include consulting, teaching, mentoring, and speaking. Credentials include PMP number 14 (Project Management Institute®), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator certification, and accreditation in the Cynefin methodology. Gary can be reached at

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