Coaching reflection: Leadership and the Consciousness of Humility

In today’s blog we explore the concept of humility. What does it mean to be humble? My first proper experience of humility was when I met Nelson Mandela many years ago when he had just been released. At the time I remember feeling somewhat perplexed as to why world leaders were saying that meeting him was the greatest moment of their lives.  When I met him, I understood.  There we stood, surrounded by his bodyguards and screaming, dancing students. Completely unfazed by any of this, he looked deeply into my eyes, took my hand and with heartfelt sincerity said: “Hello, it is a pleasure to meet you”.  I melted. And hours later, knees shaking, still felt completely melted.  Years later the impact that he had on me, like ripple on a lake, makes me greet all people with the same respect and regard whether they are a cleaner or person of perceived societal  stature due to wealth or role.

In my life journey, I have met many famous leaders ranging from having dinner with Henry Kissinger to shaking hands with Desmond Tutu and engaging with Nicky Oppenheimer. None of these meetings left much impression on me compared with my experience with Madiba. When I reflected on it after to work out how and why a person such as myself who has scant regard for celebrity status, was so utterly undone by this man, it dawned on me that what he possessed, what touched people so much, notwithstanding the greatness of his journey, were two very rare and precious personal attributes. These attributes were a deep sense of presence and humility, rare traits that are not easily found in the worldly context.  He had the ability to be 100% in the moment, connecting with you human spirit to human spirit, beyond roles and ego identities.  It is difficult to do that without the ability to be present and humble.  We will talk about presence in the next blog. Let’s unpack humility.

The Oxford Dictionary defines humility as having little or a low sense of regard for one’s self but I think that could be misleading and risks encouraging a mentality of low self-worth. Sagacious writer C.S Lewis captures the essence of the meaning more accurately, explaining that “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less”.

Humility is often wrongly associated with weakness. And yet look at the magnificent power that Gandhi and Mandela held, garbed in their simple attire with little identification with wealth or fame or status of themselves or others, just absorbed in carrying out their vision to uplift others. Indeed, there was a story that when Mandela met the queen for the first time, he ignored all protocol and warmly said “Hello Elizabeth, how’s the duke?” which she apparently enjoyed! It could be argued that an inherent sense of humility unlocks the ability to lead hearts—a far more sustained and greater form of leadership than that forced through fear or intellectualism.  But humility cannot be acted out. Pretensions are easily dismantled. So how does one go about cultivating authentic humility? There are many ways but I will share one very simple powerful and practical method.

In my MBA Leadership studies a few years ago, my wise professor made us all complete a very profound assignment which I still continue to do every now and again. He asked us to keep a weekly gratitude journal for 10 weeks. In it, we had to write down five things that we were grateful for that week and for each one reflect on how that event or person had impacted on us, and what that would mean in future. It is difficult to describe exactly why this seemingly simple exercise is so powerful until you do it and experience the effect for yourself.  One of the effects that I took away was a dawning realisation on the interconnectedness of everything in this world.  An authentic sense of Ubuntu which means “I am because you are because we are”[1]. There is a piece by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh which captures this very beautifully and poetically:

Clouds in Each Paper–by Thich Nhat Hanh[2]

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no water; without water, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, you cannot make paper. So the cloud is in here. The existence of this page is dependent on the existence of a cloud.  Paper and cloud are so close. Let us think of other things, like sunshine. Sunshine is very important because the forest cannot grow without sunshine, and we as humans cannot grow without sunshine. So the logger needs sunshine in order to cut the tree, and the tree needs sunshine in order to be a tree. Therefore, you can see sunshine in this sheet of paper. And if you look more deeply, with the eyes of a Bodhi sattva, with the eyes of those who are awake, you see not only the cloud and the sunshine in it, but that everything is here, the wheat that became the bread for the logger to eat, the logger’s father—everything is in this sheet of paper…This paper is empty of an independent self. Empty, in this sense, means that the paper is full of everything, the entire cosmos. The presence of this tiny sheet of paper proves the presence of the whole cosmos”

In my work, I am very fortunate to encounter many wonderful human beings, many of who never truly have a sense for how wonderful they are and how much light they bring into the world through their humility, kindness, selfless generosity of spirit and simplicity. I am because they are because we are.


[1] Nussbaum, B., Palsule, S., & Mkhize, V. (2010). Personal growth, African style. South Africa: Penguin Books.

[2] Kornfield, J. (2002). A Path with Heart. London: Rider Books.


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