For Public Service or Profits, Humility Goes a Long Way

I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on law enforcement and civil liberties yesterday at the State Dept. in Washington D.C. One of the speakers at my panel spoke about working with citizens and communities as a local government representative but doing so from a place of humility, forthrightness and transparency. He spoke about the importance of listening to communities rather than mandating the content of the agenda.

His remarks got me thinking about the importance of humility not only as a public servant, but also as a professor and a lawyer.

When discussing how our institutions should behave, humility is almost never brought up. Yet examples of a humble government abound in both our history as human beings and in our religious traditions. Surely Jesus was astoundingly humble. He "governed" in the sense that he led his people - but did not do so for personal or political gain.

In modern times we find ourselves drawn to those public servants who exemplify modesty. President Obama won elected office twice not just because of his accomplishments and political acumen, but also because his humble background and tireless work as a low-paid community organizer resonated with voters.

Organizations that value humility often attract the best workers and routinely score high on surveys of worker productivity and satisfaction. A recent study backs this up, showing that humility is one of four critical leadership factors for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included.

A great way to show humility is accepting and admitting to past mistakes and using these mistakes as teachable moments for constituents. When institutions and leaders admit their mistakes, they make it acceptable for others to make their own mistakes and learn from them. This is something I endeavor to do with my students, sharing my extensive personal blooper reel with students who are just starting out in their careers. Sharing mistakes also has the added advantage of making large, often impersonal institutions feel more human and approachable.

A government or organization that is humble need not be weak or ineffective. Indeed, humility is a practical attitude that can clear the political fog obscuring the reality behind important policy issues. Instead, a humble and modest government, by being honest with itself, is supremely responsive to the needs of it's constituents.

It takes tremendous courage to be humble and the organizations and individual leaders that practice humility should be rewarded for their efforts in bringing people together by bringing themselves down to earth.