Humility: The #1 Quality of Ethically Intelligent and Impeccable Leaders

Updated: Apr 4

In Lesson Two of an on-demand video training I created for curious.com back in 2014 about actualizing mindfulness-centered Work + Life success, I offered what I believe are three foundational "being" qualities that help cultivate authentic success in all the "doing" areas of our life. The first is quality that stands far above all others is Humility.

“Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation. ” - Saint Augustine

The Mango Tree and the Bamboo Tree

First, I'd like for you to get a strong clear picture in your mind about how important it is to nourish and strengthen ourselves from the ground up, yet to not have so much rigidity that we cannot be flexible.


Whenever I am facilitating a workshop or training, I offer a simple fable or parable to illustrate the basic concepts of the lesson. This is a story that comes from Filipino folklore about a Mango tree and a Bamboo tree that lived side by side:


One day, Mango Tree asked Bamboo, “Bamboo, why are you so thin? Look at me. My trunk is big and strong.”


“Mango, I may be thin but I am not weak," replied Bamboo.


"Are you sure you are not weak? Besides, what help do you give to people? You don’t bear luscious fruit like I do," Mango said with a sneer.


“I may not bear fruit, but people love to eat my shoots," said Bamboo.


“You don’t give much shade. Look at me. People want to rest under my shade," boasted Mango.


“People use me in building their house, bridges, and many things," Bamboo calmly said in response.


“If they always do that, there will be nothing left of you!" Mango said smugly.


“I am grateful for what I am and what I am able to give. I believe each of us has something to give to others, and that makes me strong," Bamboo said, standing even taller.


Not being able to agree as to which was strongest of the two, they called upon the wind to make the decision.


The wind came blew with all its might. The Mango tree stood fast. It would not yield. It believed it was stronger and sturdier than any wind could harm. It would not sway. It was too proud. It was too sure of itself.


But finally its roots gave way, and it tumbled down.


The Bamboo tree was both humble and wise. It knew it was not as robust as the mango tree. And so every time the wind blew, it bent its head gracefully. It made loud protests, but it let the wind have its way.


When finally the wind got tired of blowing, the Bamboo tree still stood in all its beauty and grace.

While it was once thought that having a massive ego, a shark-like "kill or be killed" attitude, and dazzling (but not necessarily sincere) charisma was the secret to success, a 2014 study from my alma mater Arizona State University underscored the importance of humility at the very highest levels of an organization – which of course also applies to any area of life in which you wish to attain more than just flash-in-the-pan success.


Humility is often misunderstood as being weak, yet it is the exact opposite – and is associated with empowering, virtuous, moral, ethical and participative leadership. ASU set out to see if this played out in real life corporate scenarios.


Researchers from ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, along with the National University of Singapore studied how humility at the CEO level might impact top- and mid-level managers and their entire workforces as a result. The CEOs of 63 privately held businesses in China were surveyed, as well as 1,000 middle and top-level managers who work closely with those CEOs, to see how humility from above impacted their daily routine. Researchers concluded that CEOs who are humble tend to make strong leaders because they empower others around them and foster a greater sense of ownership among mid- and top-level managers.


This sense of empowerment creates organizations that are poised for success because employees are committed, they’re not afraid to share ideas, and they enjoy greater job satisfaction as a result. Humble CEOs also tend to be more open to making joint decisions, and are often mindful of their own strengths and weaknesses and those of others around them.

“Our study suggests the ‘secret sauce’ is great, humble managers,” stated one of the ASU researchers. “They are more willing to seek feedback about themselves, more empathetic and appreciative of others’ strengths and weaknesses, and more focused on the greater good and others’ welfare than on themselves.


According to leadership coach Graham Lee, who spoke on mindfulness within leadership at the Mindfulness at Work conference in February 2012, the leadership "approaches" most commonly cited by the senior human resource professionals and leaders he talks to regularly are emotional intelligence and Jim Collins’ Level 5 Leadership. The latter model combines deep personal humility with intense professional will. And as Lee said, the two underpinnings of these approaches – emotional intelligence and humility – are changing the way people see leaders. "The core notion of humility overthrows the idea that we need a charismatic leader; it’s the opposite. Level 4 leaders are charismatic; they get things going but have no capacity to sustain … Mindfulness stands on these two pivotal ideas in leadership – humility and emotional intelligence. Interior leadership is different from exterior leadership," he stated.

”Great leaders don’t need to act tough. Their confidence and humility serve to underscore their toughness.” - Simon Sinek

You can't fake humility, even though we see people attempt to do so all the time. You can’t talk your way into humility; it’s always practiced, and perennially refined. Arrogant leaders might be successful in the marketplace in terms of profits alone, but they’re much less successful human beings. When we consider some of the greatest leaders of all time that we deeply admire, humility is often one of his or her stand out characteristics. They are always there to lend a helping hand. Jim Collins (who I referred to above), in his bestselling business and leadership success book Good to Great emphasized that companies with humble CEOs - who do what’s best for the company, not what makes themselves famous - are actually consistently more profitable than arrogant leaders.


Let's look at a side-by-side chart I created comparing what a humble person is … and someone who is not so much...

"Humility is at the equilibrium of ego. When we’re on center, we manage our ego rather than it managing us.” - Steve Smith

At the very core of a humble person is someone who has a true and healthy sense of self-worth and therefore has no need to feel insecure. Insecurities lead to self-centeredness, arrogance, feelings of superiority, and boastfulness. When one has low self-esteem the need to feel important by others is exaggerated. This high need prompts the individual to brag, act in arrogant ways, or even tell half-truths and even outright lies to fill that need. When self-esteem is high, the need to feel important by those around us is replaced by the self-confidence that is felt within. This sense of equilibrium that Steve Smith mentioned in the above quote creates a strong feeling of security, which generates that inner, unspoken confidence. That quiet confidence translates into humility. A humble character is a vital component for achieving success in all areas of life. It is an unspoken inner strength that doesn’t require the need for praise. It should not be mistaken for shyness or introversion. The humble person appears calm and confident as they work to achieve, never boastful but good-naturedly moving forward. They feel so secure within themselves there is no need to brag. June Price Tangney, a psychology professor and leading researcher of moral emotions and cognitions at George Mason University described what she considers to be true humility this way: Having the ability to acknowledge our mistakes and limitations, having an openness to new ideas, and being able to maintain a realistic perspective of our place in the larger world.

Humility empowers someone to ask, “How can I help?”

Arrogance drives someone to ask, "What can I get?"

Humility means staying confident and poised while putting away arrogance and boastfulness as we achieve our goals. When the humble person accomplishes bigger career opportunities and more wealth, they can still maintain a modest attitude and not see themselves as superior to others.


C.S. Lewis said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

Humility – in my humble opinion – is the number one characteristic of anyone who wants to lead and live with mindful, intentionally conscious awareness and Emotional, Social and Ethical Intelligence within whatever his or her sphere of influence may be - at work, at home, with family, friends and our significant other, out socially, posting on social media or online forums, in school, etc. Not one of these situations or interactions we find ourselves in is more or less important than the others. Eyes-Open Conscious Awareness Skill-Building Practices: A few suggestions on how you can introduce more humility into your life and build The Integrity Habit™:

≈ Let go of a "me me me" mindset, and open yourself to a "we" mindset.

≈ Work to improve your self-esteem. When self-esteem is high self-value is high and insecurities are low. The secure person is a humble person. ≈ Become a better listener. Don’t be too anxious to be heard. Speak less and listen more. Listen to what others are trying to say to you and try to reciprocate positively. ≈ When you catch yourself bragging about accomplishments, pull back. Be on the alert. If you are truly as great as you think you are others will recognize it without you having to say much. ≈ Let go of a know-it-all attitude in any area of your life, and be open to other people’s suggestion or opinions. Listen and then consider what is being said. ≈ Strengthen your spiritual life. A full spiritual life brings more harmony and holistic balance to your daily lifestyle, and less room for conceit. ≈ Understand that you are an imperfect human being (just like everybody else is) and you will make mistakes. It’s not a sign of weakness. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t make mistakes. It’s OK to make mistakes – that’s how we grow and learn. ≈ Compare less and celebrate more. Don’t fall into the comparison trap, comparing yourself with other people’s talents and material possessions. Instead celebrate the unique you and your talents and give thanks for what you have. ≈ And most importantly, give of yourself in service to others. This is the fastest and best way to become humble. A generous person is a humble person.


"One with true virtue always seeks a way to give. One who lacks true virtue always seeks a way to get. To the giver comes the fullness of life; to the taker, just an empty hand." - Lao Tzu,Tao Te Ching, v. 79 (Dyer translation).

The lessons of the story of the Mango Tree and the Bamboo Tree is you must be humble in regard to whatever blessings you have. Do not be too proud, or too rigid; otherwise you can't bend. Everybody has a purpose why they are alive and what they can contribute. Take a few moments each day to thank people that do jobs you won't do and those you can't do. See life in wholeness and know we are all interconnected. This post was adapted from Lesson Two of Suzanne's "Mindfulness Skills for Work/Life Success" training created in 2014, originally licensed to and offered by curious.com. © 2014, 2020, Suzanne Matthiessen, innerevolution media. All rights reserved. Please read the "Sharing Site Content" Policy and "Legal Stuff" pages.



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