Near the top of the list of what makes a leader (or anyone) extraordinary is his or her genuine humility. They’ve earned loyalty and respect by putting others first. They acknowledge the efforts of the group or of others in it over their own efforts.
This past week I’ve observed various behaviors that might have looked like humility, and no doubt the owners of the behaviors might have thought they were being humble, when in fact, they were not.
Genuine humility is a rare and remarkable trait; usually those who possess it innately don’t realize they have it. It’s an important attribute to practice on the road to becoming extraordinary.
By practice, I don’t necessarily mean that you should stand in front of a mirror saying self-effacing things, but to start by recognizing what humility is not. That way we can spot its impostors in ourselves.
What might they look like? Here are a few:
#1 – Passive Aggressive
The one I see most often and which is probably the hardest to spot in the moment, because it often sounds sincere, is passive aggressiveness that looks like humility. It might sound like this, “Thank you so much for the opportunity to ___. I’m honored that you thought of me for this. I’ll do my best to do a good job.” And then the person drops it, works on something else entirely, or does a sloppy or ineffective job. By definition, what a passive aggressive person says (which sounds humble or supportive or enthusiastic) and what he or she does (nothing or worse) — are two different things.
Most of us have acted this way at one time or another, sometimes using it as a coping mechanism in a toxic workplace where staff are punished for admitting weaknesses or saying what they really think.
Even if that was or still is the case, though, practice this approach instead: Express yourself civilly but honestly. If there are challenges, say so but don’t stop there; say how you’re going to try to solve them. Say what you’re going to do, then do what you said you would.
#2 – Scripted
Have you ever noticed that when a professional athlete is asked about a great play he made, he’ll respond by minimizing his accomplishments and applauding his team mates? I sometimes wonder how many of them are thinking to themselves, “Yeah, that catch I made in the top of the ninth inning really did save a run and the game – you’re welcome” as what is coming out of his mouth is “the other team is great and played really well but we all played a little bit better, held on, and got the win.”
I’m pretty sure that wiping the word “I” from an athlete’s vocabulary is a little bit of benign brainwashing that goes on from the time a kid first starts learning to play a team sport: “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.'”
To some, using we instead of I comes naturally; to others — who, left to their own devices, would brag about the great job they did unassisted — not so much.
There’s a lesson in this for the rest of us; I’m sure we would all would much rather hear “we” than “I” about anything anywhere. So if you have to practice saying “we” in front of a mirror, do so. The better we get at using “we” when talking about accomplishments, the more people will respect and support what we do. People want to be part of what “we” did; they don’t much care what “I” did.
#3 – Self-Serving
If your self-deprecating attitude comes with a price tag (being liked, getting something in return), then it’s not true humility, it’s something else. Putting yourself down disingenuously or building someone else up to butter them up or curry favor is dishonest. Don’t.
Instead, think of the people you know who say please and thank you; people who are defined by their kindness. The people who ask you questions and who listen attentively when you answer, who rarely talk about their personal accomplishments but are quick to acknowledge a job well done. People who lead by example and by service. People who relay good news as what we did together or what the other person did. People who keep their word. A humble person is defined by his or her actions, not words.
Practice these traits to become a person of humility, a better, more extraordinary person.