It's Not Hard to Be Humble: The Role of Humility in Leadership


Here's how to keep ego from getting in the way of effective teamwork.

Fam Pract Manag. 2018 May-June;25(3):25-27.

Author disclosure: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.

Humility is not cited as often as some other character traits in the leadership literature, but many of us have either experienced or heard stories of egocentric, arrogant leaders who have soured company culture and driven valuable employees to underperform or leave. In health care, the ongoing evolution toward team-based care and quality measurement calls for leaders who can attract and inspire followers, but a big, self-confident personality is not always a sign of real leadership. Sometimes a dose of humility is what's needed most.

I learned this firsthand when, after serving more than 20 years at a large integrated health system, I was asked to oversee its floundering central business office. The health system had declining cash flow and low employee morale. When I arrived, I discovered stacks of secondary claim forms several feet high that needed to be matched with their primary explanation of benefits forms and mailed to insurers. I rolled up my sleeves and started getting the claims out the door one at a time. Employees began to help me, initially out of guilt but soon because they knew the job had to get done. Two weeks later, as the claims began to get paid, the employees began to get excited. They had gotten their first taste of success, and they were willing to do whatever it took to get the job done. Three years later, with the same team, the system's cash flow was at an all-time high and claims processing times were low. Their pride had led to great accomplishments.

Boosted by this success, I felt I was ready to move to the next level. I took a job developing infrastructure for a newly formed primary care group, a position that included duties such as making capital purchases, leasing space, and hiring staff. I understood the basics of how to pay for these items, but the for-profit environment was new to me, and I failed to take the time to fully understand the funding process. Rather than asking questions, I started making decisions and signing purchase orders for expenditures that had been approved but not yet funded. Eighteen months later, I was let go.

I was ashamed and worried about my career. While dining with a group of friends from my previous job, they consoled me but also made it very clear that my greatest success was achieved when I led with


Charlotte Stith-Flood is program coordinator for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa, Okla.

Author disclosure: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.


show all references

1. Spears T, Schmader W. What Exceptional Leaders Know: High Impact Skills, Strategies, & Ideas for Leaders. Carlsbad, CA: Motivational Press Inc; 2014....

2. Zenger J, Folkman J. We like leaders who underrate themselves. Harvard Business Review website. November 10, 2015. Accessed February 23, 2018.

3. Dasa GP. Humility in leadership. Huffington Post website. October 27, 2014. Accessed March 9, 2018.

4. Warren R. The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan; 2002.


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