Humble Politics

Humility is a key quality of Political Prowess
Humility, key to Political Power

Generally, the term politics is one that is never explained or defined. Everyone carries their assumption of what the term is. Interestingly, there are meanings for the concept. To some the word, politics, infers no-holds-barred power plays; political battles fought to achieve a goal regardless of the costs. Contrasting, is the understanding that politics refers to a person or group who manages their power to achieve a goal. At least one scholar has defined politics as the behaviors of one who makes decisions. This much variety leads me to explore the term more, making the thesis that political strength lies in a leader’s humility. Below I lean on two leading thinkers to support this new point of view of politics and political functioning.

Humility Research

Jim Collins, author, researched and found several variables present in effective leaders who make decisions in political scenarios. He described increasingly important skills and grouped them into five levels. Here we are concerned with the behaviors of the highest level of executive capabilities Collins outlined. Chief among all executives functioning at the highest level is the quiet quality of humility. Their leadership demeanor is neither humble or competitive. “Level 5 leaders are a study in duality,” notes Collins, “modest and willful, shy and fearless.” These executives simultaneously demonstrate opposite qualities. They skillfully manage their qualities with timing, congruent to the circumstance.

Among their skills, their strong will reigns as most important. Collins created a formula for this skill: Humility + Will = Level 5 (Collins, 2001). Humility and strong will are not typically considered complementary. This simple formula gives us a view of the activities and behaviors of politics from a new perspective.

Ron Heifetz stressed how adaptive leaders think politically. Effective leaders (who think politically) constantly learn from others and from their circumstances. They develop strategies for to grow others through learning. They identify who needs to learn, what they need to learn, and how that information will be transferred. Beyond learning key strategies, Heifetz stresses that leaders have skills in politics to be adaptive to political situations. Like Collins, the political skills he mentions all require humility. They skills are to:

  • Take responsibility for your piece of the mess.
  • Develop key relationships and alliances.
  • Keep the opposition close.
  • Acknowledge loss and difficulty internally and openly.
  • Accept casualties and make progress.
  • Adapt to power structures, players, and circumstances (Heifetz,1994)

How Humble are You?

You can know your humility quotient by how you perceive your behavior and through learning how others perceive you. Imagine a ‘humility scale’ from 1 to 100. Where do you think you are on the humility scale? If you prefer a private means of reflection, Merwyn A. Hayes, Ph.D. and Michael D. Comer, D.M. provide a self assessment in their publication, “Start with Humility” (Hayes, Comer. 2010). The scale evaluates one’s care for other people, their concern for stakeholders, and how responsible they are.

Ask others for their perceptions. When others volunteer specific times you were humble, you have hard data. If they do not offer examples, ask them for specific behaviors they observed.

Ideally, you examine both your own and the perception of others to have a good understanding of your level of humility. Whether you think yourself more or less humble than others the greater the variance the more you need to learn about yourself, the greater the opportunity to learn new skills.

Got Humility?

Embrace the power of humility. Remember, it is effective, especially when coupled with will power. Politics, as we once knew, is hard edge, brutal. How vastly that contrasts with humility. Does Humility=Political Capital in your world? Explore with new behaviors.


The 21st century brings attention to the humble leader. Build humility awareness. If you need to improve in this area coaching, training and practice can help. Perfection is not the goal; movement in the right direction brings vivid results. It might be humbling, but contact Grounded Change. We are here to help. You might even get more grounded!


Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap–and others don’t. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

Hayes, M. A.. Comer, M. D. (2010) Start with humility: Lessons from America’s quiet CEOs on how to build trust and inspire followers. Indianapolis, IA: Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership.

Heifetz, R. A. Leadership without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1994.

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