Humility — An Essential Element to Leading Long-Term Change

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Leading long-term change requires confidence in your vision of change and your process to achieving it. While that confidence is essential, it most powerful when balanced by humility.

Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility. — Saint Augustine

Humility — Key to Building a Great Team

The concept of using insurgency strategy to bring about peaceful long-term change relies on people joining your effort. Those supporters are what make the difference between the success and failure of your cause.

While all supporters are important, eventually you will need to recruit smart people who have other options to your team. These people will be able to bring their valuable skillset to bear on your issue to achieve that objective.

The skillset that makes them so valuable is also the skillset that allows them to transition away from your cause at a moment’s notice.

That transition may come, because they have lost faith in the objective or process to achieve it. It may come because of financial or other life constraints.

Some of those transition factors you can affect. Others you cannot.

A recent report from Milena Nikolova and Femke Cnossen of the Brookings Institution found that among factors that affect a person’s perceptions of whether their work is meaningful, “[A]utonomy, relatedness, and competence are almost five times more important for perceptions of having meaningful work compared with compensation, benefits, career advancement, job insecurity, and working hours

The Brookings researchers describe how this lines up with self-determination theory:

According to this theory, satisfying three innate psychological needs — competence, autonomy, and relatedness — is key for motivating workers and enabling them to experience purpose through their work. First, individuals have a need for feeling competent in terms of having the skills and capabilities to overcome challenging tasks. Second, people need to feel autonomous in the sense of having choices and authority over what to do. Finally, workers feel related if they experience genuine care from their bosses or colleagues, and that they care about their superiors and coworkers in return.

A leader’s humility affects each of these three factors. An arrogant leader can decimate their team’s sense of competence and autonomy. An arrogant leader will also struggle to establish a true sense of relationship with their team members.

Humility — A Powerful Key to Lasting Policy Change

The idea that humility is powerful isn’t an easy fit into our current cultural norms. It also runs counter to the proof that people can attain a massive social and political following through being arrogant and combative.

Short term changes can be accomplished through a combination of aggression and wile. There are large groups of society that are waiting to serve someone that is willing to take an aggressive, hard line that suits that group’s belief system. Yet, it’s hard to use just that group to achieve long-term change.

Dr. Mario Mendez M.D. Ph.D.’s “A Neurology of the Conservative-Liberal Dimension of Political Ideology” from the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences provides a great analysis of the neuroscience of political ideology.

To paraphrase Dr. Mendez, most people fall somewhere along the length of a “conservative-liberal axis”…. “with relatively few individuals at the far extremes.”

I use a 30% estimate on both sides of the spectrum to generally describe the political extremes. The policies of hard line conservativism or hard line liberalism may win over 30% of a population, but it is hard to convince a higher percentage than that to fully embrace a particular dogma.

Policy ideas that revolve around the beliefs of that 30% of hard-liners may be put into place for a while in a democracy if they are able to convince an additional 20–30% more of the population to give the ideas a shot. Yet, those policies lifespans will be limited if they do not have sticking power of vision and results that reaches beyond hard-liners.

It takes humility to tweak your ideas to make them a better fit for a broader coalition. Humility is essential regardless of whether you are a hard-liner trying to win over more moderates or a moderate trying to win over hard-liners.

Both positions are hard. It is painful to the ego and intellect to put your policy ideas under the knife to cut off or graft on other people or group’s concepts.

In my experience, that pain is worth it. You almost always ends up with a better work product that has a real chance of being implemented and staying relevant for a longer.

If your objective is truly important, it’s success deserves to last years or even decades. Humility is essential to allow that to happen.

Humility Needs to Be Maintained

Humility is a practice. It requires work and maintenance each day over the course of years.

This work is especially important when your efforts find success or when you feel overwhelmed with anxiety.

Here are some daily humility-building practices.

  • Ask more questions during everyday conversations
  • Pray or meditate
  • Study history
  • Expose yourself to brilliant people outside of your echo chamber
  • Try to learn new and challenging skills — ask for help to learn those skills
  • Ask for help in areas that you and others consider to be your strengths

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A weird mix of mental health, policy, tech, writing, and Montana. Views are my own, not of any organization I’m involved with.

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Matt Kuntz

Matt Kuntz

A weird mix of mental health, policy, tech, writing, and Montana. Views are my own, not of any organization I’m involved with.

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