Several weeks ago, Bonnie Raitt entertained a sold-out crowd at the picturesque Red Rocks amphitheater in Colorado. Under a brilliant full moon, she performed with grace and humility, as though it were the most important concert of her career. She humbly told the audience she was nervous to sing a ballad in front of Diana Reeves, who happened to be in the audience, but that she would ‘lean in’ to her nerves. Later, she offered insights into her creative inspiration and shared stories of inner demons she’d wrestled throughout her life. And over and over, she graciously thanked her family, friends, and fans.
At one point, she told the audience she needed to collect herself and paused for a moment in silence. Then she sat on a simple stool and sang her Grammy award-winning hit, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” With every word, you felt the pain, disappointment, and resolution as if she were living the experience in real time. The silent crowd was rapt.
In this magical moment, her star power matched her humility. Her artistic brilliance let the audience see how authentically human she is.
At Cultivage, we’ve been reflecting on humility a lot lately. It has become a cornerstone concept for our leadership curriculum. Humility seems to be the crystalizing ingredient when it comes to taking ownership of our work, improving our abilities, and starting anew in the face of setbacks.
Humility is not to be confused with humiliation – an experience that creates shame – but rather recognized as a state of deep self-awareness where we embrace our strengths and weaknesses. A sense of humility helps us see where we can get better. It is not self-deprecating; instead, it is acknowledging that we have much to learn. And it is the perfect sword to fight the grips of perfectionism.
Practicing humility can be hard, especially for those in leadership positions. Being humble can challenge our perceptions of power. It requires courage and curiosity to embrace opportunities for growth and to resist putting ourselves above others. When a leader has the humility to ask her team how she can do better, it can impact the perception of the power dynamic. And when a man leaves a well-established career to start over and chart a new adventure, it can challenge his sense of personal power, confidence, and identity.
It is no surprise that humility requires a strong sense of self. The word humility comes from the Latin word humilitas, which means ‘of the earth.’ The Humble Warrior pose in yoga offers a great visual: the legs are in a wide stance for grounded stability, the torso dropped and curled to bow to the earth, and the hands clasped behind the back and reaching upward to the sky. The pose requires control, strength, balance, and flexibility, much like the state of humility.
Dr. David Hawkins, a philosopher and medical doctor, writes that “…Humility, despite its negative public and social image in some quarters of society, is indicative of expertise, wisdom, and maturity.” And many spiritual traditions believe that deep spiritual maturity can only be achieved through the practice and principle of humility.
Practicing humility requires deep introspection. Perhaps this is why life-shattering events often bring about our humility. When we are taken to our knees, we are more likely to ask the big questions, tune in, and see the world – and our place in it – differently.
The book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, takes the humbling experiences of people who have “fallen, failed, or gone down” in some way and eloquently reframes them as a turning point in the trajectory of those people’s lives. According to author Richard Rohr, these humbling moments are often the launch point for the second half of life where we grow internally. He values these experiences so much that he writes, “I pray for a humbling experience every day.”
To show up with humility demands we honestly assess and accept our contributions—both good and bad—to any given situation. From this vantage point, we can acknowledge where we come up short, ask for feedback and support to get better, and act on opportunities for growth.
Here are my 10 favorite questions to support a humble mindset:
- What can I learn?
- Where are my blind spots?
- What don’t I understand?
- What am I fearful of?
- What am I avoiding?
- Where do I need strength?
- Where do I need support?
- Where do I need to pause and listen?
- What might I learn here that may be of help to others?
- How can I be of service in this situation?
What does humility mean to you? Where do you see humility in the world around you?