Pope Francis waves from his Fiat 500 as he is driven down Third Avenue in New York. (AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith)

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself; It’s thinking of yourself less” C.S. Lewis

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States brought to light and reinforced the message of humility and simplicity. As many have remarked, he has not let the trappings of the office define who he is, and instead has remained as true to himself as he can be – a simple, and humble man. In a world where we constantly hear people bragging about how great they are and engaging in self-promotion, it’s refreshing to hear the message of humility. While we listen to some presidential candidates arrogantly tell us that they can solve all of our problems, it is inspiring to hear instead the value of working together.


Joyce E.A. Russell (University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business)

Humility is not just an attribute important for world leaders to possess. It is also important for all of us as employees and leaders in our companies. Most HR experts will tell you that someone who is interviewing for a job should come across with confidence, but not with arrogance. They need to illustrate their talents, but not in such a way as to discount the contributions of their fellow co-workers or teammates. Those who cross the line may never get hired.

Research shows that employees who rated their managers as humble reported being more committed to the leader’s vision, more engaged at work and receptive to the leader’s ideas. Jim Collins writes in “Good to Great” and “Great by Choice” about the value of a leader’s humility in terms of their firm’s financial success. Others have shown that managers who demonstrated traits of humility (defined by seeking feedback and focusing on the needs of others) resulted in better employee engagement and job performance.

Here’s some ideas about how to practice humility at work:

“We” instead of “I.” The success of a department is not due to one person, but to a team working together. Yet, it is amazing how often people describe successes just to themselves (as if no one else exists). While it is important for individuals to show confidence for contributions, it is also telling if a person takes all of the credit.

Self-monitor. Be able to read the room or audience and adjust behaviors accordingly. Have you ever been in a meeting where one person dominates and clearly does not even see the clues that others are bored or disinterested? Often this occurs when the person is bragging about their expertise, contributions or views.

Humble does not mean quiet. You can be passionate about a project or your ideas. Just don’t use excessive adjectives to describe yourself. Be clear, concise and to the point. You can expand on your views if needed. In the words of another humility role model, Mother Theresa, “speak as little as possible of one’s self.”
Listen to others’ opinions and really hear them. They show that you value the views of others and want their inputs.

Be willing to admit mistakes. An executive I know shared a personal story with his staff about a mistake he made with his family when he was younger and how he learned from this mistake. A very private person, he decided to share the story so that his staff would understand how he dealt with conflict today. Just by sharing this story, he became more human to his staff and it opened the doors to greater connections with them. Those who can’t seem to say “I did something wrong” or ever apologize for anything are often seen in a negative light by others.

Be self-aware. Make continuous improvements in yourself and how you interact with others.

Allow others to take credit. As Harry S. Truman said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Humility is not something we are often taught, and yet it is an attribute that can make us stand out in a positive way, especially in a world where so many seem to be screaming for personal recognition and glory. To be successful, it is important to be confident, not arrogant. Being passionate, confident, enthusiastic and humble can be a winning combination. Leaders should lead by example. Maybe we can all take a lesson from Pope Francis.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean of learning at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.