John C. Maxwell: Humble Pie

UPDATED: November 1, 2013
PUBLISHED: November 1, 2013

Once, early in my career, my friends gave me an unexpected gift, a T-shirt that read, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”

They laughed as they presented it to me, but I suspected they were trying to tell me something. Later, I approached one of the presenters and asked if I really was that way.

“Yes,” she said with a smile, “that’s who you are. But we love you and know you can change.” Her words were kind, but she’d touched a painful truth: I lacked humility, the one trait we all need if we’re going to learn and grow. In fact, I was just the opposite of humble. I was prideful, competitive and bent on winning. And when I won, I was insufferable. If I beat someone, I told him I had won. And then I told everyone he knew that I had won. I put everyone on edge.

The worst part? I wasn’t even aware of it. Not until the day I got that T-shirt.

The gift spurred me to change my attitude from know-it-all “expert” to humble student. See, humility is what allows us to recognize and learn from our mistakes. It is the quality that makes the difference between the person who fails and falls, and the person who stumbles, gets up and never repeats the same mistake. I think humility is so valuable, actually, that it’s a huge part of my latest book, Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn, which this lesson comes from, as will my next two colums in SUCCESS.

Have you noticed how easily some people bounce back from losses? They learn from them and become better. Others, after they experience something negative—you can see the downward spiral starting. And no matter how much you want to help them, you can’t. They just don’t learn from their mistakes.

What is the difference between these two kinds of people? I don’t believe it’s the degree of adversity or anything else outside their control. The difference is on the inside. It’s the spirit of an individual. Those who profit from adversity possess a spirit of humility and are therefore inclined to make the changes needed to learn from their mistakes, failures and losses. They stand in stark contrast to prideful people who are unwilling to allow adversity to be their teacher, and as a result they fail to learn.

Everyone experiences hardships. Some people are made humble by it. Others are made hard. And they all carry that spirit with them everywhere they go.

The religious leader Ezra Taft Benson observed, “Pride is concerned about who is right. Humility is concerned about what is right.” That’s a pretty accurate description. Pride causes people to justify themselves, even when they know they’re wrong. And that’s just the start of it. Take a look at the negative traits pride can bring with it.

Blame: Instead of taking responsibility, prideful people fault others whenever things are not working out for them.

Denial: Instead of being objective and realistic, they don’t face reality. The prideful business leader will ignore what is obvious to everyone else. The prideful member of a dysfunctional family will rationalize his and others’ behavior.

Closed-Mindedness: Instead of being open-minded and receptive, prideful people are defensive and opposed to new ideas. They say, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” and they have little interest in innovation or improvement.

Rigidity: Instead of being flexible, prideful people are stiff. They say, “We do it my way or I’m out of here.” The ghosts of their past, even their past successes, haunt them and hold them back.

Insecurity: Prideful people inflate themselves and deflate others because they are insecure. They take credit for successes and blame others for failures. Instead of fostering team spirit, they create low morale and drive away their best people.

Isolation: Instead of being connected, prideful people find themselves out of touch—with themselves, their families, their community, and their clients and customers. Pride makes people think it’s all about them when really it’s about others.

I’m grateful my friends steered me off that path. Now what about you? You may already be a humble person. If so, that’s fantastic. But if you aren’t, here’s the good news: You can change. If I did, then you can, too.

If you’re not sure where you stand in regard to humility—if your friends haven’t given you the T-shirt—then perhaps this can help. Kirk Hanson, a professor and executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, offers a list of characteristics exhibited by unteachable leaders. I’ve altered his points slightly, to state them as questions you ought to ask yourself.

• Do you tend to believe you know it all?

• Do you tend to think you should be in charge?

• Do you sometimes believe the rules don’t apply to  you?

• Do you believe you shouldn’t fail?

• Do you tend to believe you get things done better all by yourself?

• Do you believe you are better than others with less talent or status?

• Do you think you are as important as—or more important than—your organization?

If you answer yes to many of these questions, you may not possess the spirit of learning. But don’t be discouraged. If you have gotten off to a bad start, don’t worry. It’s the finish, not the start, that counts most in life.

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.