Habits of an agile servant leader – Habit 4 (part 1): Humility

With habits like Awareness and Mindfulness, Empathy and Compassion, and Deep Listening and Observing, agile servant-leaders naturally engender a sense of humility regarding themselves while having heartfelt respect for those they are serving. Humility and Respect always go hand in hand as one cannot feel a deep sense of humility unless one truly respects others, and vice versa. They, together, make an important habit, the 4th habit in the series, for any agile servant-leaders who seek to succeed.

Because of the importance of these two qualities, we are going to examine each of these qualities in two separate posts. In this article, we will shed light on Humility by exploring what it means, examining behaviors of humble leaders, and how important a role Humility plays in Scrum Masters’ agile servant leadership skills.

OCTOBER 03, 2019 | Reading time: 7 mins

Humility is the foundation of leadership

Reproduced from Julian Stodd 2015

What is Humility?

Humility is “the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others”.

With Robert K. Greenleaf’s definition of servant leadership in mind – which emphasized leaders seeking to serve first, humility is an inevitable ‘ingredient’ that makes up true servant leadership’s work. A 2014 study by Catalyst – a Bloomberg’s research partner, showed humility is one of four critical leadership factors creating a workplace of trust, harmony, and commitment.

Humility usually connotes a leadership weakness because people often think of humility as “thinking less of oneself” – a quality that turns them into a low self-esteem “doormat” to everyone. However, it’s actually about “thinking of oneself less” – giving attention to others more while still possessing a strong sense of self-confidence (Joe Sabini 2018).

Martin Luther King Jr. quote: Life's most persistent and urgent question is: hat are you doing for others?

Martin Luther King Jr., a beacon of servant leadership

Behaviors of humble agile servant-leaders

Studies by Catalyst and Dr. Robert Hogan from the University of California Berkeley found humble leaders, in general, share the following behaviors:

Behavior #1

“Try to see themselves accurately and listen to feedback from others in order to see themselves accurately”

This trait of listening is covered in the Habit 3 (Deep Listening & Observing) article of this blogpost series.

Behavior #2

“Very open to new ideas from other people, and accept and learn from different points of view”

This attribute of openness is, in fact, one of the five important Scrum values.

Humility Chinese Proverb: Be like bamboo, the higher it grows, the deeper it bows

Reproduced from Orthodox Thought For The Day, 2015

Behavior #3

“Appreciate the strengths and contributions of other peoples, understanding that they have something to contribute”

It is also one of Robert K. Greenleaf’s 10 characteristics of servant leadersCommitment to the Growth of People and has a very close definition with Scrum value of respect:

“Respect involves taking a second look at how we view others, to develop a sincere appreciation for the unique capabilities that they contribute” (Scrum Alliance 2017).

Behavior #4

“Seek contributions of others to overcome challenges and limitations together”

In Scrum, this would be described as the courage to “work on tough problems” as a team.

Behavior #5

“Leaders with high scores on humility are more coachable than those with lower scores.”

In Agile culture, this means Scrum Masters are coachable coaches. They coach others and simultaneously are easy to be coached by others.

Although these can be deemed small characteristics found among humble leaders in general, the tremendously-positive influences they have on the leaders themselves and the organizations they are working for at large is scientifically-proven.

As a result, it is worthwhile for servant-leaders in Agile software development environment to learn and apply them in practice so that they can thrive and transform their effectiveness in the same way.

Humility’s foes: Arrogance and Charisma

Arrogance is the state of being “unpleasantly proud and behaving as if you are more important than, or know more than, other people” (Cambridge English Dictionary).

In Robert Hogan’s terms, arrogance makes the most destructive leaders and “is the critical factor driving flawed decision-makers” who “create the slippery slope to organizational failure”.

Arrogance is a quality most found in charismatic leaders, who were much sought-after traditionally. Charismatic and arrogant leaders being favored over the past years was due to the misbelief that they’re more talented than humbler fellows.

Arrogance and charismatic leader

However, many researchers point out that “charismatic leaders leave a trail of chaos and ruin.

According to Dr. Robert Hogan (2018), charisma and arrogance ruin leadership in many ways:

  • They make narcissists and psychopaths, “specializing” in manipulating others for their own benefits – instead of cooperating with others for the benefits of many.
  • They make promises they cannot keep, overspend company’s resources, and under-estimate how difficult it will be to implement their vision.
  • They ignore any kind of negative feedback and objection”, making them even more susceptible to repeating the unhealthy behaviors at the cost of the company and its members.

Dr. Robert Hogan (2018) said the only way to get better and achieve “continuous improvement – the key principle underpinning most Agile frameworks like Scrum and Kanban, is to be open to feedback. It can be said that charisma and arrogance will bring about total disastrous performances from an Agile point of view.

Therefore, Agile servant-leaders are advised to avoid being cocky so that they can embody and help others practice the true Agile spirit successfully.

Pope Francis TED quote: The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don't, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the others

Humility in practice

Humble CEOs

A study on the personality of CEOs of some of the top Fortune 1,000 Companies shows that what makes these companies successful as they are is the CEOs’ humility. These CEOs share two sets of qualities seemingly contradictory but always back each other up strongly:

  • They are “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy”. They are modest. And they admit mistakes.
  • At the same time, behind this shy-away look, they are “fiercely ambitious, tremendously competitive, otherly tenacious”. They have strong self-confidence and self-esteem. And they’re willing to listen to feedback and solicit input from knowledgeable subordinates.

According to Dr. Robert Hogan (2018), these characteristics of humility create “an environment of continuous improvement”.

Dr. Robert Hogan shares about the importance of humility in leaders:

Humble staff

In his book Delivering Happiness, CEO of Agile organization Zappos Tony Hsieh said:

Be Humble is probably the core value that ends up affecting our hiring decisions the most. There are a lot of experienced, smart, and talented people we interview that we know can make an immediate impact on our bottom line. But a lot of them are also really egotistical, so we end up not hiring them.”

He also added that Zappos is “willing to make short-term sacrifices if we believe that the long-term benefits are worth it.”

Zappos’s story holds out 2 facts:

  1. Humility brings long-term benefits.
  2. The most important factor for successful organizations, especially Agile companies, is humility.

What we learn

Not only the CEO’s humble personality lands an Agile company at the top of the competition. It’s also the staff being truthfully humble that’s perceivably beneficial for the company in the long run. Since humility doesn’t discriminate against statuses of seniority, everyone in an Agile organization should learn to be genuinely humble, indeed.

Benefits of humility for agile servant-leaders

Benefit 1: Increase inclusiveness – the ground of trust

As mentioned earlier, the Catalyst study pinpoints humility as one of the four most important factors in creating a healthy workplace. It is because humility creates “an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included”.

This feeling of inclusiveness makes people feel cared for, laying the stepping-stones for trust, harmony, and commitment.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Social need is a prerequisite to ego need. (Reproduced from Peachey Publications, 2018).

On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the need for feeling inclusive and socially-belonged to is a prerequisite for asserting one’s ego. It means that as a member of the Scrum team, a Scrum Master can only shine brightly with their team members as a team. Never individually.

Benefit 2: Strengthen the bond with peers – the basis of well-being

In his TED Talk Be humble, Raymond Tang holds humility in high regard. It allows him to form “a lot richer connections” with people around him and get more genuinely and humbly interested in the background stories and experiences that make others unique.

Indeed, he is able to:

He said, “instead of promoting my glory and success, it is so much more satisfying to promote the success and glory of others”.

Well-known leadership and EQ expert Karl Albrecht would agree with Raymond Tang, as he found humility allows one to relate effectively with others and improve interpersonal relationships to a great extent, which contributes significantly to their mental health.

Benefit 3: Deepen awareness

Humility has a strong impact on self-awareness and awareness of others. It is found that “leaders with humility often seek out feedback from others as they strive to identify how they can be more effective”. Moreover, high self-awareness together with humility “empowers a leader to care mightily for the welfare of others and the best interests of the organization”.

What’s more, it enables them to “recognize the importance of constantly improving, learning, and growing”. In other words, humility among agile servant-leaders supports the Scrum’s agile mindset of continuous improvement through deepened awareness.

Benefit 4: Improve empathy

Humility is the “launching base” for empathy, so to speak. In humility, there is a genuine care for others that one is willing to listen to others deeply. Leaders are more willing to connect with themselves and others at an authentic level that improves empathy for themselves and others.

“Leadership effectiveness is often dependent upon the leader’s ability to clearly understand the hearts and minds of others”.

Therefore, through empathy, humility increases agile servant-leaders’ effectiveness at work, paving the way for solid trust in Agile teams.

Benefit 5: Increase staff engagement

It is shown that humility:

  • creates the spirit of commitment among employees
  • increases loyalty, productivity, and customer service rating
  • reduces staff turnover
Motivated software developers are more productive

Motivated Axon Active staff have a lot of fun on a company trip.

With humility, agile servant-leaders can then “build projects around motivated individuals” (the fifth Agile principle).

How to cultivate humility among agile servant-leaders

Cam-Caldwell and Comfort O. Okpala quote about love yourself

Follows are some tips that agile servant-leaders can use to cultivate humility, according to Cam Caldwell, & Comfort O. Okpala (2018).


In this article, we have walked you through the meaning of Humility from various perspectives, how a humble agile servant-leader behave that will allow her/him to garner success in agile work environment, some examples of humility in practice, as well as the disadvantages of arrogance and charisma as opposed to humility.

We hope that the article has given you a more insightful understanding of humility in agile servant leadership and inspires you to embody your understanding about this quality to make your workplace a better place!

Up next, we’re discovering Respect, the other important quality of Habit 4! 🙂

Axon Active Scrum Breakfast session no ego leadership

A Scrum Breakfast Vietnam event provided by Axon Active that looks upon ego-less leadership in agile.


Get a quote