Is Humble Leadership an Oxymoron?


madden 12As I was playing a Madden football video game with my son recently, I couldn’t help but notice what he had his players do every time they scored a touchdown against me. (And this was often.) They did a dance, somersaulted across the goal-line, or otherwise strutted their stuff. Either my son hadn’t learned to be humble, or he thought I needed a dose of humble pie. Or both.

Of course, he learned this from watching the examples of professional athletes on TV. Seriously, can you remember the last time you saw an NFL player score a touchdown and simply hand the ball to the ref without strutting his stuff? Or the last time you saw someone not beat his chest after throwing the basketball down for a monster slam dunk? Me neither.

I’m all for intensity, competition and celebrating victory. But where has the humility gone?

Humility is not only missing on the sports field. In business and organizational life, there also seems to be a gaping hole where humility should be.

We say that integrity and doing the right thing is important – especially in a leader, who is expected to set the tone for others. Yet, too often, we don’t allow mistakes, and we don’t encourage humility. And, therefore, we unknowingly put pressure on ourselves and others to create a ‘superman’ image that is not real and not helpful for us or others.

Humble leaders regard themselves highly but realistically. They…

  • Hold high standards but are ‘down-to-earth.’ They are willing to be transparent, vulnerable, and remorseful when they fall short.
  • Are confident but not arrogant.
  • Strive for high performance but don’t rely primarily on their performance to determine their worth.
  • Don’t need to put others down to prove their value.
  • Win and lose with grace – towards themselves and others.

Humble leaders regard others highly, too. They…

  • Help others aspire to high standards and excellence, but, at the same time, they are patient and forgiving, remembering where they fall short.
  • Are committed to helping others be successful.
  • Are considerate of others and their interests.
  • Seek to serve not only their customers and those ‘above’ them but also their peers and subordinates.
  • Are quick to praise others and share credit for successes.
  • Are quick to apologize when they mess up or their team messes up.
  • Build trusting relationships.

Thankfully, there are still humble leaders in the office and modest leaders on the athletic field, though they are harder to find these days. I just hope Madden ’14 will feature some of them to give me a little grace when I face my son.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. He humbly admits his novice-level abilities in playing most video games. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.