Skip to main content

In the competitive world of corporate leadership, humility is often misunderstood and misapplied. Consider my client Ellen, a senior executive at a globally recognized corporation. Renowned for her exceptional strategic acumen, Ellen faced a challenge not uncommon among high achievers: She frequently made self-effacing comments that minimized her contributions. While she intended these remarks to reflect humility, they inadvertently drained her confidence and eroded her team’s respect and trust in her leadership. Ellen’s story is a powerful reminder that true humility is not about belittling oneself but rather about focusing outward on how one can contribute to the lives of others.

During one of our sessions, Ellen shared how she felt pressured to “stay small” to avoid the stigma of arrogance—a trait she deeply detested. She believed, like many do, that diminishing herself was a necessary shield against becoming someone people disliked. This is a common misconception about humility that I see in many high achievers and leaders, one that stems from a misunderstanding deeply ingrained in our culture.

C.S. Lewis expressed it eloquently when he wrote in his book, Mere Christianity, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” This profound observation captures the essence of humility: It’s not about belittling oneself but about shifting focus from oneself to others. True humility involves recognizing and accepting one’s worth and then using this self-assurance to serve and uplift others.

In our sessions, Ellen and I explored the lives of some of the greatest role models of humility: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. These leaders stood tall in their self-worth, yet their lives were dedicated to the service of humanity. They exemplified that one could be proud of one’s achievements and still retain a humble heart devoted to the greater good.

With time, Ellen learned to embrace her achievements and view her strengths as tools for serving her team and advancing her company’s mission, rather than as means for personal aggrandizement. She began to lead with a renewed sense of purpose, focusing more on how she could contribute to her team’s growth and less on her own self-evaluation. Today, she is the CEO of a well-respected multinational corporation that uplifts the lives of millions of customers around the world.

True humility, as demonstrated by Ellen’s transformation, teaches us to be proud of who we are and confident in our value—but not to linger there. Instead, we extend our energy outward, caring for, attending to, affirming, and honoring those around us.

This shift from false humility to true humility is not just about personal growth; it’s about creating a more compassionate and effective leadership style. It encourages us to step into our power so that we can use it to empower others, a fundamental principle for any leader aspiring to make a real difference.

In cultivating true humility, we find a balance between self-recognition and altruism, a balance that can transform not only individual lives but also the entire fabric of our organizations and communities.