Recently I had an executive coaching client ask me a great question. She asked whether it’s good to be humble. She’s faced with a situation where people around her are “tooting their horn” and exaggerating their results. It’s end of year performance ratings negotiations.  She doesn’t feel all that comfortable doing that yet she struggles because her perception is that she needs to do that in order to get ahead. What to do?

As serendipity would have it, around the same time as I got this question, I was in a meeting with former US President Jimmy Carter. I am part of the Carter Center Board of Counselors. At one point during the meeting after two of the young Carter Center interns had made great presentations, President Carter got up and said with a smile “One of the times I feel the most inferior is when I have to present after the interns”. It got a great laugh from the audience. The statement was full of humor, humility and humanity – qualities that shine through President Carter. And it got me thinking, I wonder if these words are related.

They are. They all come from the root word “humus” which is “earth” or “ground”. I started playing with the words and here’s what I came up with: “Salt of the earth” (meaning humble and without pretense), “grounded”, “standing your ground”, “down-to-earth”.  I came to understand what the root of the word actually means. It means being real, being authentic, being true to yourself. I saw a quote from Mother Theresa: “If you are humble, nothing can touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know who you are.”  And I thought of all the people I think are genuinely funny. They don’t take themselves too seriously. Interestingly, “humus” can also be interpreted as a type of a compost which serves the earth to renew itself.  Could it be that humility is being so grounded in who we are that we find our connection to everyone else and are compelled to serve?  It’s as if we were a tree nourished with deep roots freely contributing our fruit to passers-by.

Back to the struggles many of us have about whether to be humble or to “toot our own horn”.  If the essence of humility is being oneself, finding one’s place to serve, then there is no conflict between being humble and talking about our successes. President Carter proudly shares all the good work the Carter Center is doing around the world in “waging peace, fighting disease, building hope”. The difference is the place it’s coming from. He’s not doing it to “feel good about himself” or “look good”.  He is already secure in his authentic self.  He’s doing it for the benefit of the organization and the people it serves.  The most appropriate question to ask ourselves when we share our results is “what is my intention here”? If we are already grounded in who we are “tooting the horn” is about sharing ourselves, sharing the work we passionately care about, sharing the contributions of others, and serving the organization. Doesn’t feel so uncomfortable does it?

C.S. Lewis summed it up perfectly: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less”.  For me, the essence of humility is finding our place to serve. This is the journey of transformational leadership.

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Additional Resources:

To define your leadership authenticity: The Authentic Brand: YOU

To contribute to the good work of the Carter Center: Go to their website

This article was written by Henna Inam, executive coach, speaker, and consultant.  She works with women to help them realize their potential to be authentic, transformational leaders. They create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth, and engagement. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, UPS, Nestle, J&J, and others who know female leadership talent is good for business. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here. Connect on Twitter @hennainam.