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What is the Difference Between Good and Bad Humility?

Humility is fundamental to effective leadership, which is why I include it in my 3H-Core along with honesty and heart. But is it possible to have too much humility in your leadership?

In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, Tony Martignetti of Inspired Purpose Partners makes a case that there are at least three ways humility actually can undermine your leadership.

Humble leadership, he says, is “characterized by a willingness to admit a mistake or when you don’t know something, a tendency to share credit for successes, and an appreciation for others’ contributions.” And it is “built on self-awareness, respect for others, and a focus on collective over individual success.”

So what’s the downside?

Humble leaders can be perceived as indecisive, Martignetti writes, and their style can hinder their career advancement and limit their team’s development. That makes humility a double-edged sword, he says. Then he goes into more detail about each limiting factor and offers some practical solutions along the way.

I agree that those issues are real and with his solutions to them. But what he sees as humble leadership “taken to an extreme” that harms your career and your team I see as issues that arise from failing to act in true humility. In other words, the problem isn’t that leaders are too humble but that they aren’t leading with enough true humility.


There’s a misconception that humility equals passive and weak. That’s not really the case. Humble leaders are meek, not weak. In the original Greek, meek was used to describe a powerful animal like a horse that has learned to control its strength.

Humble leaders are strong, confident, and courageous, so they act decisively when circumstances call for decisive action. And when a leader acts decisively, followers notice. There’s no perception of indecisiveness; there’s the reality of a bold leader who shares credit and doesn’t make a big deal of making decisions. This builds trust, not doubts.

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Career advancement

Humility in a leader also doesn’t mean that you don’t advocate for yourself when career advancement opportunities come along. Indeed, if you are called to lead others, then you proactively seek ways to expand your influence. You just go about it in humble ways.

Humble leaders, for instance, don’t drone on and on in first person singular (or third person!) about their individual accomplishments. But they do answer questions honestly about their leadership and share their role in ways that honor others.

Team development

Finally, humble leaders empower those around them and encourage them to grow through stretch assignments, so they don’t limit their team’s development. They don’t micromanage or refuse to delegate in a misguided effort to lighten the load on their team. Instead, they are generous with assignments, help when it’s appropriate, and take pride in the accomplishment of others.

I have worked for, been around, and read about many humble leaders, but my favorite example is John Wooden, the former UCLA basketball coach and hall of famer. I’ve never heard of anyone who knew Wooden who didn’t agree that he led with humility. I’ve also never heard anyone suggest he was indecisive, and clearly humility didn’t limit his career advancement or his ability to develop teams!

Fundamentally, humility is about how you see yourself as a leader. But if your efforts to lead with humility are backfiring with issues like the ones outlined by Martignetti, don’t make another mistake by dialing back your humility. Instead, explore what true humility actually looks like and double down on that.

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