For some unexplained reason, most people are unable to define what humility is. Some dictionaries equate it to low self-esteem or meekness. One survey found 56% of 5th and 6th graders said that the humble are embarrassed, sad, lonely or shy. Even adults confuse humility with humiliation, recounting past experiences of when they felt embarrassed. 

Then, what exactly is humility?

The science shows humility exists when a person possesses an accurate assessment of both their strengths and their weaknesses. The person understands their flaws and abilities. What’s most important is that they’re able to see themselves as only part of the picture; it doesn’t revolve around them. 

women sitting in a group; pre-employment assessment

Interestingly enough, the humble rarely describe them as having humility. They’re not ones to feel ashamed or embarrassed, or the other traits mistakenly switched for humility. In fact, they generally have a strong foundation in the emotional and social aspects of their lives. Humility indicates a high amount of “self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management”. They’re able to create an environment of stability around them. 

If you’re looking for a niche lesson in humility, you may want to check out the story of Kyoto’s 1,020 year old mochi shop.

a shop in japan selling mochi; pre-employment assessment

Ichiwa, a family business, sells mochi (a Japanese rice cake) next to an old shrine in Kyoto. The business was founded in the year 1000. That’s right. This tiny shop survived famines, earthquakes, wars, and changes in regime power. 

The shop’s matriarch, Naomi Hasegawa, is one example of a quickly-fading sense of traditional leadership. Kenji Matsuoka, a professor emeritus of business at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, tells the New York Times that these kinds of businesses operate with entirely different goals and principles. Where modern organizations focus on growth, franchising, and scaling up, these businesses focus on being passed down to the next generation. It’s focused on creating a secure present, rather than gambling for the future. 

Each generation focuses on their part. Each family member helps out in keeping it running. Even despite it generating little financial support for the family, Hasegawa shares how “we keep going because we all hate the idea of being the one to let it go.” By understanding their place within the millenia-long business (!), leadership looks different than our current idea. A bit gentler, more conservative or even anxious maybe. 

But the mochi shop knows what they do. They know their strengths. They serve two items on their menu: mochi and green tea.

They also know their weakness: with the current pandemic, there are far fewer tourists these days; not to mention, their competition includes the mochi shop across the street. They understand where their shop fits into the scheme of things. 

Humble leadership in action is not only understanding context, but it’s about prioritizing the success of the organization over one’s own self. In a Journal of Management study of 105 computer software and hardware firms, humble CEOs tended not have astronomical pay differences between themselves and their team. They decentralized power and decision making. These leaders tended to enjoy less employee turnover and better company performance. 

The science is clear: humble leadership matters to the performance of an organization

And when you’re a small mochi shop next to a shrine, being humble is a competitive advantage. The research shows that while humble leaders want to perform and succeed, they know that it’s not guaranteed. Hence why Hasegawa and her family feel the weight of their shop’s history.  Each member in the family has been told that “as long as one of us was still alive, we needed to carry on”. It’s not guaranteed, but they’re willing to put in the effort to keep it going. Whether that’s purchasing new equipment to save hours of work or refusing to offer any other beverage than tea to limit expenses, Ichiwa is being managed to survive.

Ichiwa is an example that humility doesn’t weaken a leader’s authority. Science shows that humility gives them more flexibility to share power and responsibility.  “Our findings suggest that humility appears to embolden individuals to aspire to their highest potential and enables them to make the incremental improvements necessary to progress toward that potential.”


What are the 3 principles of humble leadership?


Understand your own strengths and weaknesses

little boy in red shirt showing strength; pre-employment assessment

By understanding yourself, you’re able to see where your limitations and abilities lie. Thereafter you’re better equipped to understand how others are able to help you. You’ll be able to hire the skilled software developer to program your website or find the AI-powered software that helps you sift through thousands of resumes in minutes. As Socrates said, “knowing thyself is the beginning of wisdom”. 

Share responsibilities and decision making

two guys talking in front of the laptops; pre-employment assessment

A humble leader knows others contain their own experiences and wisdom. They are willing to listen to others opinions as they realize they don’t have all the answers. They are not only willing to listen, but they actively ask for feedback from their teams. A humble leaders encourages others to take their own initiatives without asking for permission. 

Focus on adaptation

little plant growing from the ground; pre-employment assessment

These leaders are not tied to their own ideas or their own egos. They focus on the organization surviving. In the case of the mochi shop, they focus on it being passed down through the generations. Therefore they focus on adapting as needed. Ichiwa adapted by charging price per plate instead of the traditional honor system and adapting to new food guidelines. Humility as a leadership is about remembering positioning the team and/or company for long-term success.

During this time of uncertainty, the organizations that create environments that encourage the knowledge flow, diversity, autonomy, decentralized power, and flexibility are ones that see adaptation thrive. Where there is a willingness to adapt, there is a more open environment to strategize growth, stability, or whatever business goal an organization may have. Humble leadership is a dynamic and sustainable way for companies to stay ahead.

Companies like BMW and Lufthansa, leverage Retorio's AI to support their own talent management teams. Our video-based AI was featured in TechCrunch and Süddeutsche Zeitung .

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Elizabeth T.

Written by Elizabeth T.

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