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Five ways to tell if humility is real or fake

You know the type. In meetings with the boss, your co-worker is deferential and winsome, but back in the office he’s full of bluster and condescension for all around him. In public, he wears humility like it’s a comfortable hat; in private, he’s all about his own self-interest. 

Whether in business or politics, on the athletic field or in the classroom, there are lots of people who feign humility but in fact care only about their own agendas. 

How can we tell if humility is genuine or fake? Here are five ways:

1. Real humility leads a person to be curious about and concerned for others, not fixated on how others can lead to one’s own enrichment. Humility is putting others first in thought, word, and deed.  It resists the temptation to self-aggrandize.

It’s easy to feign interest in another person if there’s something in it for you, like a job promotion or increased recognition.  A person with humility is in it for the long-term common good, not short-term self-interest.  Examples include helping  colleagues because of who they are, not because of their position, or writing a great letter of reference for a young person.  

As a young man, George Washington had an enormous ego and insatiable appetite for renown.  Once he recognized that he had to be ambitious for goals beyond his own advancement, he was better able to check his ego and resist the allure of power for its own sake. 

2. Humility is about true service, not self-congratulation. Fawning, fake humility is ingratiating, not giving.  It pretends to be generous, but in reality it’s self-centered.  Take the humblebrag.  When asked to identify a personal weakness, a humblebraggart might say, “I’m always working too hard for everyone else.”

Humility is often erroneously portrayed as poor self-esteem, but in fact it’s the arrogant who have a distorted sense of self.  Arrogant people have an exaggerated view of their own contributions, and limit the good they might do by clamoring for credit. 

3. In admitting an error or acknowledging that one is wrong, the humble person not only apologizes but also changes course. A person pretending to be humble might say a halfhearted “sorry,” but stubbornly continues down the same path. 

Throughout his career, Abraham Lincoln was willing to learn from his mistakes. Like George Washington, Lincoln was a man of immense ambition, but as he made humility his habit, he was able to see with greater moral clarity.  

Whether in political or military decisions, Lincoln was willing to own up to his errors. 

“I now wish to make personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong,” Lincoln wrote Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863. Referring to the General’s decision-making, and ultimate success at the critical Battle of Vicksburg, Lincoln admitted that his own strategic advice had been incorrect. He thanked General Grant for “the almost inestimable service” he gave the nation in making the right decision. 

4. Real humility builds up; false humility tears down. The same person who is quick to claim credit for a project done well is often first to blame others whenever there is a problem. When the results aren’t good, Jim Collins writes, a humble leader “looks in the mirror, not out the window.”  

5. The more responsibility or power one has, the more humility they need. Often those who have displayed false humility in an upward climb reveal their arrogance when they’ve reached the top.  We can be confident that George Washington’s humility was real because when he was at the peak of power he relinquished it—twice—first as general in returning to civilian life and then again as president in leaving office after two terms.

It’s hard to read what is in another person’s heart, but false humility has a way of revealing itself. First Lady,  before the term existed, Abigail Adams gave her son advice that rings true even today, “If you begin to think yourself better than others, you will then become less worthy, and lose those qualities which now make you valuable.”

David J. Bobb, Ph.D., is author of Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America's Greatest Virtue, just published by Thomas Nelson.  Executive director of citizen education for Hillsdale College, he is founding director of two national centers for Hillsdale, including the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C.  Follow him on Twitter @DavidBobb, and like him on Facebook.