Humility: The 5th Sense of Character-based Leadership

by  Mike Henry  |  Leadership Development

I wrote a post published on Smartblog on Leadership about the
4 senses of character-based leadership and shared it with both the Lead Change and the Linked2Leadership communities. Over on the Linked2Leadership group page on LinkedIn, Bjorn Nilsen commented:

“…the key sense that needs to be added to the list is ‘sense of one’s self’. This is the keystone to character-based leadership – an awareness of one’s self, one’s strengths, one’s weaknesses, one’s ‘gut-level’ instincts and reactions to any situation. A lack of self awareness makes it impossible to lead from ‘who you are’ and places you in a position of having to lead from a position of power…”

So I got to thinking about a sense of self. My initial reaction, probably because of when I was raised, who my parents were, and because of my own tendency to be pretty arrogant, was that a sense of self is not a good thing. Maybe not you, but many of us tend to think of ourselves as the center of the universe. Everything that happens is evaluated based on the impact to us. If we find a $20 bill laying around, our first thought is how lucky we are to find it. We might even decide that this is some divine pay-back for something we lost years ago. It might be God’s idea of helping us out, or it could be a great excuse to purchase a lottery ticket. All of my initial thoughts when finding a $20 bill laying around would go along those lines.

Someone lost that $20. There’s no chance that it just materialized or was created without an owner. Twenty dollar bills don’t own themselves. They can’t purchase their freedom. They can’t ever be free. A $20 bill always belongs to someone. My initial thoughts are almost never for the person who lost it.

In fact, my initial thoughts are almost never for the other person in just about any situation. When I fell in love with Vicky, my wife, my initial thoughts were of her. And after 30 years of marriage, at times they still are. (It’s honest, not necessarily great, but honest.)

Every day, I have to train myself to think of others. Sometimes it seems as if I’m either thinking of myself or I’m thinking of myself because I didn’t think of others. It’s a vicious circle where I’m still thinking of myself all the time, but never constructively. I’m either selfishly thinking of myself or I’m selfishly criticizing myself.

I’d call humility a healthy sense of one’s self. Humility allows us to objectively understand ourselves in a way that is simply most effective in dealing with others. Humility enables us to make the most of our own strengths without offending or creating some type of co-dependent relationship. Humility is an accurate understanding of oneself. Can we know our strengths and weaknesses in a way in which others would agree? Can we understand ourselves and still respect others?

As Bjorn mentioned above humility is critical to effective character-based leadership. It is an awareness of one’s strengths, weaknesses, instincts and reactions. I would add that the humility we need, the fifth sense for a character-based leader, is also a sense of awareness of our values and passions, but that’s for another post.

So consider now the 5 senses of character-based leaders: Mission, Urgency, Responsibility, Service, and Oneself. Definitely a foundation of character-based leadership is humility: a healthy, balanced sense of oneself.  Check out the Smartblog on Leadership post for more on the first 4 senses and let me know what you think.  What are your thoughts on the need for an accurate sense of oneself?  Care to share below?  Thanks in advance.  I’m grateful for your attention on the topic.


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About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Page Cole  |  23 Dec 2013  |  Reply

A healthy sense of one’s self… I agree it’s critical, a vital part to character based leadership. But besides just modeling this behavior for those you lead, what are some specific suggestions you or others might have regarding helping your team members also have a health sense of one’s self?

Kim Ledbetter  |  23 Dec 2013  |  Reply

I agree that humility and a sense of oneself are very important in leadership. If someone tells me I’m being selfish, my response is, “who else is going to take care of me?” No one is going to hand me a sense of achievement, responsibility, or all the material things I could ask for. Its up to me to achieve those things for myself, and I’ll only succeed if I speak up or take action. This extends to the company I represent, and if i understand my own needs, then I’m going to understand my company’s needs also… and that benefits more than just me. As a Mom, I have to take care of myself so that I’m able to be the parent my children need me to be.
While its important to realize the sense of oneself, its also important to note that ‘oneself’ encompasses ALL of you. Your wife is part of you, your company, your team, and your friends are all a part of you and therefore you become a better leader as you enrich their lives as well. That is why that even with a high sense of oneself, you can ‘give more than you take’ and you can make a difference for others.

Mick Ukleja  |  25 Dec 2013  |  Reply

Great article for stimulating our thinking. Humility is a magnetic quality. It’s counter intuitive. Rather than promote ourselves, we promote others, and in that sense they are drawn to us. What is humility? It’s not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.

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