There are two forms of humility.
A healthy humbleness emanates from an accurate self-perception that takes into account both your greater and lesser strengths. It is rooted in the authentic recognition that you have distinctive as well as common characteristics when compared with others. Healthy humility is supported by a genuine yet quiet confidence.
When we possess a healthy humbleness, we put our interests, abilities, and agency in context. We listen more. We set appropriate goals for ourselves and have fair expectations of others. More importantly, the healthy version of humility keeps our ego in check so that we are discouraged from projecting a blustery, boastful nature. A healthy humility is a strong and helpful trait to possess for development leaders.
On the other hand, meekness born from feelings of worthlessness, humility that emerges when we question our true value, or a humble spirit caused by doubts in our capability or capacity to achieve greatness are examples of unhealthy humility. Unhealthy humility is an injurious characteristic to possess.
You won’t seek that promotion if you don’t believe you deserve it or think you can’t do the work. You won’t push yourself to finish that degree if you doubt your intellect. You won’t lean in and take responsibility if you believe you are or will be a failure. In so many areas of life, you simply won’t reach your far edge of promise and transform your future if your humility is driven by fear.
Groups of people, even whole institutions, can experience unhealthy humility as well. Some institutional cultures might find it difficult to build a compelling case for support and promote their goodness and distinctiveness because they possess an unhealthy humility at the institutional level. They may not plan boldly around their distinctive strengths and opportunities because the unhealthy humble spirit of the institution encourages a more moderating outlook.
In many instances, when institutions struggle to plan for and passionately promote their missions, programs, and value, it is due to a collective belief, held deep within the fabric of the culture, that mediocrity is the best that can be hoped for. There are questions of worthiness. And there are serious doubts that the future will be any different. The accepted (but perhaps unspoken) refrain goes something like this:
“We’ve always struggled with our enrollment/fundraising/external relations because the world has never valued us the way others are valued. Our future won’t be any different.”
When humility is healthy – when it is projected based on strengths, confidence, and knowledge, individuals and institutions will plan boldly, act decisively, engage others effectively, and achieve meaningful goals. But when humility is unhealthy – born of feelings of worthlessness and questions and doubt, neither the individual nor the institution will do the meaningful work of planning, engaging others, and acting confidently. And transformation will never happen.