Between humility and hubris

Like so many others, I love watching Ted Lasso. So much so, that my teenage son and I have re-watched all of the currently available episodes from the three seasons, several times. There is always more to unpack!

For the uninitiated, it is a show about football. But for those in the know, it is so much more. The characters are multi-faceted, relatable and flawed. There are constant reminders about the incredible impact of true self-belief and working as a team. Many have written about the lessons we can learn from Ted. And to be fair, he does provide an ongoing bounty of wisdom.

However, I am often more interested in the characters who exhibit extreme traits and their ongoing personal evolution. There are several characters in the show who exhibit the characteristics of humility and hubris.  And as many of us have experienced, it is exactly the same at work. Somewhere in between those two extremes is the sweet spot. It is a delicate balancing act that not all manage to achieve, as it takes self-awareness.

Finding yourself at either end of the spectrum is often the result of several factors. A lot of it has to do with the environment, the style of leadership in that environment and the hidden experiences that shape each individual on their journey through life. 

As is the same for all of the characters in Ted Lasso, you can ultimately decide how you want to engage with the world – regardless of your own personal history and the workplace that you choose to participate in.

What is humility?

Humility is the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance[1]. This is not the same as being humble. To be humble means that you have an accurate opinion of your accomplishments and can put your accomplishments into perspective.  However, both words find their origins in the Latin word “humilis”, which means “low”.

Humility is typically a feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others. There is a lack of pride. If you feel humility in front of someone, you effectively feel small in the scheme of things. Often the best place to experience humility is in nature, as you realise your place and relative insignificance.

For the Ted Lasso fans, there are several examples of humility in Season 1. My favourites are Nathan Shelley, Dani Rojas and Sam Obisanya. 

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Nate as he begins to show his false humility. Image credit:

Although I absolutely adore Dani “football is life” Rojas and his sincere humility (how can you not?), and the beautifully humble Sam, for me the most interesting character is Nate. His complete transformation from seemingly utter humility to extreme hubris is shocking and yet, often feels familiar.  How many Nates have we seen in the workplace?

We have glimpses of Nate’s home life, and we see him being initially bullied and treated badly by Jamie Tartt.  As Nate’s character and his many facets are slowly revealed, it becomes obvious that there is a simmering anger beneath the surface. 

Some argue that Nate really had an attitude of false humility rather than true humility all along, and there is certainly evidence to support that.   We see the first glimpses of this with how poorly he treats his replacement once he is promoted.  False humility is quite a different kettle of fish to genuine humility and has a dark undertone – and upon reflection, Nate is a pretty good example of this.

False humility

Put simply, false humility is pridefulness in disguise.[2]  There are usually some tell-tale signs of false humility:

  • Deflecting praise
  • Fishing for compliments to draw attention
  • Humble bragging
  • Falsely portraying helplessness or a lack of power
  • Excessive self-deprecating humour
  • Being overly dependent on what others think
  • Telling others how humble you are

Although it may seem that to get ahead at work you need to engage in constant self-promotion, false humility is not the way to go and rarely wins any fans. False humility is not genuine and eventually it becomes quite tiresome. 

Genuine humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking about yourself less.[3]

Too much humility?

We live in a time where self-promotion is rife and being “on brand” is deemed to be critical. So, the ancient virtue of humility seems to sometimes clash with our current valuation of self-worth and self-realisation. And indeed, excessive humility at work will sometimes mean that you may be overlooked and forgotten. If you are unable to articulate your worth and find your voice, that is also often dangerous.

Excessive humility sometimes turns up as martyrdom – and ultimately, this doesn’t work either. I have worked with many a martyr and it is very frustrating and after a while it appears insincere. 

Humility has nothing to do with meekness or weakness. Neither does it mean being self-effacing or submissive. It is about maintaining modesty in the face of success and not taking our desires or failings too seriously.[4]  

Humility in leadership

Humility is also important in our ability to learn and be effective leaders. The Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle believed that humility was an important part of gaining wisdom. Having an accurate understanding of our strengths and weaknesses is still a core feature of the modern definition of humility. 

Leaders who retain a sense of humility tend to foster trust, engagement, and creative thinking. That is simply because they usually acknowledge that they don’t have all of the answers and are prepared to own their mistakes. And who doesn’t love a leader who is prepared to do that? 

Interestingly, humility is having a bit of a resurgence. As a term, it was used extensively in the 1800s and then steadily declined in the early 1900s. In the last couple of decades, it has been on the rise – perhaps serving as an antidote to the current trends of arrogance, greed and narcissism.

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Source: Google Books Ngram Viewer

What is hubris?

In contrast to humility, hubris is excessive pride or self-confidence. It is an extreme self-belief in one’s abilities and is typically seen as arrogance. In short, if you are suffering from hubris, you have begun to believe your own hype (or insert another word here that starts with “b”). 

Leaders who exhibit excessive hubris are usually unwilling to hear criticism of their behaviour and ideas. They make decisions on their own, believing that they have all of the answers. Hubris often includes a gross overestimation of one own’s competence, accomplishments and capabilities. It is also often a signal that things are about to go very wrong. 

The impact of hubris on an organisation is typically severe. People are mistreated, the company performance suffers, and the culture is poisoned. “Leaders tainted by hubris give life to toxic environments, workplaces where incivility and downright hostility often flourish”.[5]

I have seen quite a few senior leaders fall into the hubris trap. It is always someone else’s fault – the market, the analysts, the staff, the clients.  Hubris makes you feel somehow invincible, untouchable and unaccountable. And that is very dangerous.

Hubristic traits are triggered by achieving a position of power and it typically worsens the longer someone holds power and the more power they accumulate.[6]  Reaching a position of power can often distort your perception of yourself. This is something that all senior leaders must remember – losing a grip on reality is often the beginning of the end.

In Ted Lasso, a great example of hubris is Jamie Tartt, although Rupert is also consistently a hubris hero. This is particularly the case in Season 1 with Jamie, although interestingly we see him begin to move much closer to humility after a series of setbacks and life lessons, coupled with consistent guidance from Ted and Roy. As the seasons progress and the characters evolve, Jamie moves away from hubris and closer to humility. And Nate does the opposite. As any fans of the show would attest, the closer to hubris the less likeable the characters become. That in itself is worth remembering.

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Jamie in full hubris mode Image credit:

What is so interesting to me about hubris is that the individual who exhibits the characteristics so often seem to be blissfully unaware of just how unlikeable they have become.  

Here are some of the impacts of leaders who exhibit hubris[7]:

  • Lack of trust. There is an inability to take any accountability for their own shortcomings or incompetence and this quickly erodes trust. Everyone else is to blame.
  • Weak relationships. Not surprisingly, without trust, it is very difficult to create solid bonds. 
  • Irrational decision making. Leaders with hubris do not like criticism of their ideas or behaviour, as they truly believe that they can do no wrong. So, they often make very poor decisions or even worse, no decisions at all.
  • Ineffective teams. Leaders who cannot engage their teams find it hard to achieve sustained results. A good test is the level of staff turnover – if there is a continual revolving door, hubris may be the culprit.

Finding the sweet spot

So, how does one find the sweet spot between humility and hubris? Well in my opinion, if you had to make a choice, closer to humility is always a safer bet. Here are my top tips of how to find the right level of humility and less hubris in your working life:

1.      Understand your own strengths and weaknesses and try to stay self-aware

2.      Ask for feedback and then really listen

3.      Own your imperfections, as we all have them

4.      Stay curious and open to learning – including learning from other cultures

5.      Be prepared to laugh at yourself

6.      Get your hands dirty and get back on the tools when needed – this is one of the best qualities of true servant leaders

7.      Spend time in nature – it has a way of putting you back in your place in the whole scheme of things

And for me, the character on Ted Lasso that best encapsulates that sweet spot between humility and hubris is none other than Roy Kent. Surly and foul mouthed he is – but he also exhibits a willingness to learn and grow based on changing circumstances. He is not afraid to be vulnerable and open his mind to new information and ideas. A great example of this was when he read “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle, gifted to him by Ted to help him understand his leadership role from a different perspective. 

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The one and only Roy Kent. Image credit:

Roy is an ideal that we should aspire to. He has the courage to speak his mind. He is honest and that includes admitting when he is wrong.[8]

Quite frankly, his advice to Rebecca about her love life was so spot on, that my best mates and I have shared it on WhatsApp to remind us not to settle for anything less than lightning. That was gold.

He may not laugh at himself, but he is open to feedback, aware of his imperfections and always prepared to help others and get his hands dirty. Despite his potty mouth and perpetual growl, he hits that sweet spot between humility and hubris with incredible accuracy. Is it any wonder that he is a fan favourite?

A final word

So, at work (and in life), we have a choice about how we strive for ongoing self-awareness.  No matter how senior you become and no matter how much you have achieved, it is important to keep learning about yourself and the world around you. In a world that sometimes feels overrun with hubris, don’t forget to balance the hype with the ancient virtue of humility.

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