How Humility Affects Your Leadership

How Humility Affects Your Leadership

Quinn McDowell 5 min read

Warm Up

Humility has gone out of style.

Virtually disappearing from our modern vernacular, the word got smothered by more popular concepts like self-esteem and personal greatness. Humility faded to the background as the gospel of self-trust invaded our cultural discourse and robbed us of a moral vocabulary.

Simply put, the virtue of humility matters a great deal. It matters not only because it allows us to become better leaders, but because humble athletes, coaches, and administrators are the ones who build the types of teams that make a difference in the world.


Humility is one of the most vitally important but most overlooked virtues in sports. Every coach will tell you they would love to coach players that are humble and hungry, and yet, we rarely put much effort into defining and cultivating the virtue of humility on our teams and in ourselves.

Let’s engage in that process by first constructing a definition of humility so that we can begin to pursue the types of characteristics that produce true humility.

Humble people have an accurate self-awareness

In an era of selfie sticks and Facebook, we are more aware of ourselves than ever before. The concept of ‘self’ is constantly on the forefront our minds as we design our lives—and our social media pages—to reflect the pristine picture of how we want others to perceive us.

In contrast, humble people don’t feel the need to paint a perfect picture of an “ideal life” for others. They have the ability to zoom out and objectively assess the merits or shortcomings of their character. They are more committed to the team’s success than personal accolades. As one men’s basketball coach put it, “They are WE guys, not ME guys.”

Humble people embody a disposition that is less concerned with the image they portray and more concerned with the quality of their work, the effectiveness of their lives, and the content of their character.

Humble people think of themselves less

As C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic book, Mere Christianity:

“The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.”

Humble people refuse to play the “self-esteem” game. They are not self-deprecating or self-congratulatory, but instead they are self-forgetful. They don’t think less of their accomplishments by putting themselves down, nor do they inflate their own ego by elevating themselves over others.

True humility is characterized by a quiet confidence and a genuine interest in others’ realization of their full potential. These are the “glue guys” on the sports teams that are always thinking about how to make their teammates better.

Pastor Tim Keller says humble people are like “toes”:

“The truly gospel-humble person is a self-forgetful person whose ego is just like his or her toes. It just works. It does not draw attention to itself. The toes just work; the ego just works. Neither draws attention to itself.”

Humble people have true freedom

New York Times Author David Brooks wrote that humility is tied to an important kind of freedom.

“Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry.”

Humble people have true freedom because they have learned to rid themselves of the cumbersome shackles of comparison. Achieving superiority over others is not a box that humble people are trying to check.

Instead, humble people have set themselves free from the constant need to compare their accomplishments against those around them to feed and nourish their own ego.

Being released from the burden of comparative score-keeping frees the humble person to concentrate on improving their own performance, character, and moral integrity instead of wasting their energy worrying about how they stack up against others.

The virtue of humility matters primarily for two reasons. First, humility gives us the freedom to become the leaders we were created to be instead of the person we believe others think we should be. Second, true humility leads to wisdom. Wisdom helps us become better leaders.

David Brooks again: “Wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.”

Great leaders have cultivated the wisdom to adeptly handle their own ignorance, uncertainty, and limitations. They are able to navigate the inevitable pitfalls of their own pride because they have wisdom to guide their path.

A team that embraces a humble approach to leadership will find that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Humility gives us the freedom to root for our teammates (even when we’re not playing), inspire those around us (even when we don’t feel like it), and help the team reach a level of performance that was unattainable without a humble approach.


Work on developing the habit of self-forgetfulness and redirecting your mind and consciousness toward others. Here’s an exercise to consider doing:

  1. Keep a small notepad or note card with you throughout the day
  2. Keep track of every time you find yourself thinking about something related to YOU (i.e. your daily checklist, food, your clothes, others opinion of you, your future, etc. etc.)
  3. Keep a separate list of “others-centered” topics. This could include bible verses, quotes, other people’s problems you want to help out with
  4. Every time you find your mind drifting towards yourself, flip over to your list swap out the “you” thoughts for “others-centered” thoughts