Learning Requires Humility

“Humility is really important because it keeps you fresh and new

Steven Tyler

Humility is the second requirement Marshall Goldsmith recommends in order to decide who will benefit from coaching.  In the last ‘New Rule’ I posted, I was focused on courage. https://learningomnivores.com/rules/caring-takes-courage/

As a review, here are the three qualifications to look for in a potential coachee for the best results:

  1. Courage – ruthless honesty in confronting reality
  2. Humility – being willing to listen to others and learn from and with them
  3. Discipline – follow-through

As Donald H. McGannon, Past President of the National Urban League, said, “Leadership is Action, Not Position”

I have found coaching those who know everything are not candidates for coaching.  Think about it.  If you know everything, why would you want input, suggestions, or have questions of accountability being asked of you?

Some of the questions I ask to assess humility are:

  • What are you working on?
  • What is it that you want to do better?
  • What is not happening that you want to have happen?
  • What is happening that you don’t want to have happen?

In Stakeholder Centered Coaching I ask people the leader trusts for honest feedback:

  • What are the leader’s strengths?
  • What are the leader’s challenges?
  • If you were God/Empress for a day and could change one thing about the leader, what would that be?
  • Anything else I should know for background?

When creating themes and sharing the data from the stakeholders, I find out very quickly how they received feedback.  Are they accepting? Rejecting? Defending? Wanting to change their behavior? Etc.

For the questions above, I ask for specific behaviors or dialogue that gives examples of the stakeholder’s concerns.

What I am listening for is responsibility.  Does the person being coached take any responsibility for the results?   Rare is the case that someone else is 100% causing problems.  If someone is 100% the cause, offer an improvement plan or part company. That is more a supervisory decision.  Coaching, of course, may be part of the improvement plan.

Marshall Goldsmith (2007) wrote ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’.  When someone doesn’t see a pathway to get from where they are to where they want to be, a coach might be the answer. Learning means continually acquiring more repertoire for their own improvement from others who probably have good suggestions and/or workshops to deal with new and uncertain issues.

Another indicator I listen for is for the person I am coaching to say, ‘I want to know how to…’ or ‘I’m not as good as I want to be in this area’  Once the person can identify a behavior they want to work on, coaching can move more quickly.  This shows vulnerability and a willingness to work on new or modified behaviors leading to more positive results.

Whether teaching classes on leadership or coaching leaders, my belief is to be successful leaders they have to be able to make two statements with total authenticity.  These two statements are:

  • “I’m Sorry”
  • “I don’t know”

As a leader, I guarantee there will be times when both of these statement will be needed.  The question becomes, do people believe the leader? Humility and honesty create trust.

The more humility, the more learning and more quickly learning will happen. This is because the person will be willing to considering more options. Here is a quote by Edgar Schein (2013), Professor Emeritus, MIT, from his book Humble Inquiry:  “Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”  Remember, you never have all of the answers and by asking the right questions we can all learn, grow, and find new answers.

Some additional thoughts from Schein’s book are:

  • Effective help occurs when both giver and receiver are ready. …
  • Effective help occurs when the helping relationship is perceived to be equitable. …
  • Effective helping starts with pure inquiry. …
  • It is the person being coached who owns the problem. …

Here are a few sources of information on humility that can support reasons to check on humility as a state of mind prior to accepting a coaching assignment.

Hargreaves and O’Connor (2018) state, “Research shows that when leaders express humility, teams engage in more learning behavior.” This is another reason to help leaders build more successful teams.  In my next book, which is in process, I spend the majority of time collecting resources to Create Talent Density by Accelerating Adult Learning.

Maysa Akbar (2020), in her book Beyond Ally writes this about being open to understanding cultures, “I encourage you to enter into this journey with humility, an open mind, and a loving heart. It is OK to be a student and to learn the right way.”  Since I will never be a woman or a person of color, to begin understanding I have to ask questions and be open to learning.

Amy Edmondson (2019), in The Fearless Organizations gives the following viewpoint. She asks the question, ‘In what ways can you become a more humble person?’  That is a great start.  Edmondson continues, “Situational Humility is a learning mindset, which blends humility and curiosity, mitigates this risk. A learning mindset recognizes that there is always more to learn.

Humility is the simple recognition that you don’t have all the answers, and you certainly don’t have a crystal ball.”

Genuine humility is about knowing we have ideas to contribute, none of us knows everything. The following quote should help remind us of this.

Every person in the world is better than someone else, and not as good as someone else.”

William Seroy

Writer and Philosopher

The last attribute  the Marshall Goldsmith recommends for determining readiness for coaching is discipline or follow-through. This will be the subject of the next ‘New Rule.’


Akbar, Maysa. (2020). Beyond Ally.   Hartford CT:  Publish Your Purpose Press.

Edmondson, Amy. (2019).  The Fearless Organization.  Hoboken, NJ:  John Wiley & Sons

Hargreaves, Andy & O’Connor, Michael. (2018). Collaborative Professionalism.

Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press

Schein, E. (2009). Helping – how to offer, give, and receive help.  San Francisco: Berrett-    Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Schein, Edgar. (2013). Humble Inquiry – the gentle art of asking instead of telling.

San Francisco:  Berrett-Koehler.

Sheridan, Richard. (2013).  Joy, Inc.  New York:  Penguin

Sheridan, Richard. (2018). Chief Joy Officer.  New York: Portfolio/Penguin


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