The Importance of Leader Humility in a Downturn

Leader humility can seem counterintuitive.

Some think of leaders as being strong and humility as being weak. But leader humility simply means feeling and displaying a deep regard for others’ dignity—a respect for their self-worth. That’s an idea most people can get behind.

Humility is a strength because leaders relate to many people.

Our times are often called “unprecedented.” The challenges we’re facing make leadership more important than ever. Leaders need to oversee our work, keep us safe, handle so much that’s unexpected, and, hopefully, guide us to greener pastures.

Can humility make leaders more effective during crises? Yes, it can.

3 tips for leading with humility during crisis:

#1. Understand you’re not the only one feeling stress. 

Whether you manage a team that is on the front lines of the pandemic, comprised of essential workers, or working remotely from home, all of your people are operating under strain. Their work involves more complexity and uncertainty than ever before, a state that’s been prolonged for all of us. Make time to ask how it’s going and offer whatever support you can to make a difference.

#2. Communicate what’s happening with your business. 

There’s a lot of fear in the air. Some is justified. If your business or situation is solid, people feel reassured to hear that. If you’re struggling, people will appreciate your transparency in letting them know what you’re doing to survive.

If you’re forced to make cuts, make sure that your practices are humane. Consider furloughs instead of layoffs. Temporarily reduce retirement contributions, for example, before you let people go.  

#3. Show gratitude for the work everyone is doing.

Pay attention to what is going well and let people know you see them doing that.

How might humility serve leaders, teams, and organization during a downturn?

Bonus material: How Alan Mulally Built Humility into Ford’s Leadership Culture

Dog shaking hands.

Humility means feeling and displaying deep regard for others' dignity.

Purchase: The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility: Thriving Organizations—Great Results

This guest post was written by Dr. Marilyn Gist, an expert on leader development. Her academic career spans the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the University of Washington, where she held the Boeing Endowed Professorship of Business Management; and Seattle University, where she was formerly associate dean at the Albers School of Business and Economics and executive director of the Center for Leadership Formation. She speaks and consults with organizations worldwide, including Boeing, AT&T, Providence Health System, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and NASA. Her new book is The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility: Thriving Organizations—Great Results. Learn more at