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The Role of Humility in DEI Initiatives

Updated: Nov 19, 2020



A few weeks ago as I was scrolling through my LinkedIn feed I came across an interesting post about the organizational prerequisites needed to ensure effective diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. The author identified 5 ingredients (and I would argue rightfully so) that are necessary for DEI initiatives to be effective and sustainable. These ingredients include humility, intentionality, responsibility, transparency, and accountability. Each ingredient needs to be woven into the very tapestry of the organization, from its most mundane processes to the broad structural systems that ultimately shape employee behavior. Implicit in this argument is that an organization's leaders must embody and model these behaviors as well. However, how exactly can leaders do this and what is the impact of leading in this inclusive way? In this article series, I’ll explore each of these ingredients in an attempt to answer these central questions. Let’s begin with humility. 

What is humility exactly?

Historically, measuring humility is a difficult endeavor arguably because the most humble among us aren’t likely to call themselves humble. Meaning, self-assessments will not work. So, in order to understand the role and impact of humility, we need to examine the impact of humble leaders on their followers. In keeping with pertinent research, I argue that humble leaders (as perceived by followers) can work as a catalyst for action by improving the relationship of trust with followers. Humble leaders accomplish this in 3 distinct ways: (1) acknowledging personal limits, (2) spotlighting followers’ strengths and contributions, and (3) modeling teachability (Owens and Hekman, 2012). These categories, in turn, have a profound impact on how followers perceive not only their leaders, but their own abilities and lived experiences by opening a safe space to learn and acknowledge valuable contributions. 

Humble leaders can work as a catalyst for action by improving the relationship of trust with followers.

What is the impact on followers?

Perhaps the greatest value in exhibiting humility is that it requires that the leader put their own abilities, achievements, and shortcomings aside in order to acknowledge the context of many other organizational journeys that are just as valuable and legitimate. In doing so, the leader opts to “valorize the strengths and achievements of others” (van Dierendonck, 2011). In this way, humble behaviors can have two main outcomes: (1) at the individual level, it can increase the sense of personal freedom and engagement among followers by legitimizing their developmental journey, and (2) at the organizational level, it increases the agility of the organization by legitimizing the feelings of uncertainty that come with exploring others’ lived experiences, as opposed to relying solely on the safety of accepted organizational norms (Owens and Hekman, 2012). This emphasizes that the leader’s humility can affect performance both by improving the quality of the leader–follower relationship (individual level) and through the creation of a learning and adaptive organization (systemic level). 

Acting with humility for the sake of being humble is a short sighted view of such behavior and its impact on organizations and on DEI initiatives in particular. Part of any DEI journey requires that we acknowledge, value, and engage to learn about the lived experiences of others. Being humble opens the door to this open mindset. For leaders and organizations alike, acting with humility grants an ability to accept degrees of uncertainty about our contexts and environments. In accepting this uncertainty, humility can serve as a tool to identify and then scrutinize structural inequities that seek to devalue and delegitimize the experiences of historically underrepresented groups.

The humble leader/organization that recognizes systemic inequity needs to step forward to create more equitable systems. A starting point may be to create formal programs to ensure that every employee is offered a mentor, rather than supporting “natural” mentoring relationships which typically exclude people of color. It means inviting all employees to sign up for skill and management training rather than letting bosses hand-pick their favorite workers. Finally, it means getting line managers involved in looking deeply at the problem of equity, brainstorming for solutions, and putting those solutions into action, rather than leaving the problem to outside consultants who have no authority to change things.


Li, J., Liang, Q. Z., & Zhang, Z. Z. (2016). The effect of humble leader behavior, leader expertise, and organizational identification on employee turnover intention. Journal of Applied Business Research, 32(4), 1145–1156. 

Owens, B. P., & Hekman, D. R. (2012). Modeling how to grow: An inductive examination of humble leader behaviors, contingen- cies, and outcomes. Academy of Management Journal, 55(4), 787–818.

Sousa, M., & van Dierendonck, D. (2017). Servant leadership and the effect of the interaction between humility, action, and hierarchical power on follower engagement. Journal of Business Ethics, 141(1), 13–25.

van Dierendonck, D. (2011). Servant leadership: A review and synthesis. Journal of Management, 37, 1228–1261.

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