Humility – Huh? – What’s It Good For?

Scott Farrell comments:

Humility has long been associated with the qualities of a chivalrous character. In fact, it is one of the principles of chivalry that is notably lacking in just about every other warrior code of honor. No one expected the Greek heroes to refrain from singing their own praises. Viking warriors reportedly indulged in long sessions of bragging and self-aggrandizement – the more you could embellish your own victories, the more respect you earned from your fellow Norsemen.

But a knight? Well, whether it’s an accurate reflection of historical reality or not, humility is intertwined deeply in the virtues of chivalry, and continues to be an icon of a “chivalrous person” in today’s world.

But just what is humility? Many people associate this quality (quite incorrectly) with the notion of “humiliation.” It’s seen (again, incorrectly) as the quality of being a loser, a failure, someone who doesn’t have any self-confidence, or who has suffered an embarrassment. In contemporary views of leadership, humility is generally considered a liability, not a benefit.

In fact, humility is the quality of being humble, which is a function of being confident and self-assured. This fusion of personal strength and quiet assuredness isn’t a politicallly correct reinterpretation or a modern addtion to the historical concept of chivalry – it goes right back to the true medieval definition of chevalerie.

Writing in the 13th century, Spanish knight Ramon Llull said:

Humility and Strength are two virtues that … are against (that is “that are in opposition to” – ed.) pride. If you proud knights would vanquish your pride, (then) assemble within you Courage, Humility, (and) Strength. For Humility without Strength is nothing, nor may it hold against pride … Strength and Humility, which are spiritual things, are much better at casting out pride.

For Llull, “pride goeth before a fall” was not a figurative concept. In his treatise on the importance of humility, he points out that the knight who possesses this blend of strength and humbleness will be much more resilient in defeat (that is, being knocked out of his saddle onto the ground) than a knight who has an overly glorified image of himself.

But this appreciation of humility may seem to be at odds with our modern notion of an effective leader. Today, we expect the successful leader to be someone who has no qualms about letting others know about their talents, their accomplishments, and their expectations for future success. “Who me? Aw, shucks! I don’t deserve a raise, or a trophy, or a promotion.”  That’s just indulging in false modesty, or so a lot of leadership experts seem to think. Enjoy what you earned, and let your boss and your co-workers know they should respect what you’ve done.

It turns out, however, that Ramon Llull knew a thing or two about the value of real humility in an effective leader: Humbleness indicates a strength of character, a self-assuredness that is too often lacking in leaders who constantly need to convince everyone else of their value – and who may, subsequently, overlook their own shortcomings, or who may place too much importance in their own opinions. Like a knight riding too high in his saddle at the start of a jousting match, someone whose opinion of him- or herself is too lofty might be ripe to take a fall when confronted with adversity. Humility has measurable benefits in the field of business leadership, and can lead to better interpersonal relationships, and improved academic performance. Being humble doesn’t mean you are weak, ineffective, or unmotivated; it just means you try to maintain a realistic view of yourself and your place in the world.

For a more modern approach to this concept, read this article by New York Times bestselling author Ashley Merryman (originally published in the Dec. 8, 2016 edition of The Washington Post), which takes an insightful look at research being done today into the importance of humbleness and humility in a leader.

Follow this link to the Washington Post website to read the full text of Ashley Merryman’s article Leaders are more powerful when they’re humble, new research shows.

Ashley Merryman is co-author (with Po Bronson) of two New York Times bestsellers NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (at right) and Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. Her articles “Losing is Good for You,” “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” and others have appeared in many prominent newspapers and magazines.

About The Author

Ashley Merryman is co-author with Po Bronson of two New York Times bestsellers NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (pictured, above) and Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. Her articles “Losing is Good for You,” “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” and others have appeared in many prominent newspapers and magazines.