An essential need of every human being is to feel like they matter. This is what drives us to try to accomplish more in this world and to earn the feeling of satisfaction that comes along with those accomplishments. As we achieve success,  how can we develop an appropriate sense of self worth without becoming arrogant?

The Talmud says the following statements about the sage Hillel: 

The Rabbis said, One should always be humble like Hillel and not strict like Shammai. (Talmud, Shabbat 30b).

They said about Hillel the Elder, when he came to celebrate the Pouring of the Water (in the Temple), he would say: “If I am here, everyone is here. And if I am not here, then who is here?” (Talmud, Sukkah 53a)

How is this statement an example of humility?

When Hillel the Elder said, “If I’m here, everything is here,” he meant: “based on my abilities and talents which God gave me and for which I take no credit, if I am here, everything can take place now. I have all the ability and therefore obligation (responsibility) to take care of whatever needs to happen at this particular event.” 

True humility is an honest recognition of the gifts and strengths you have and the responsibility that entails in putting them to use. The gifts God gave you don’t say anything about who you really are – after all, what did you do to receive them? But they do say a lot about what you are capable of doing. 

Insecurity stems from not appreciating the special strengths and gifts God has given you, and results in the need for external validation and approval of others. That in turn leads to arrogance, a false sense of self that ineffectively strives to fill the inner void of feeling good about oneself.

The key to becoming a fearless and humble leader, one who understands their own greatness but doesn’t use it to try to tower over others, is to develop a healthy, authentic self-esteem. Those who develop this healthy self-esteem will find that in addition to becoming “fearless and humble”, they will also become great leaders. Their confidence will naturally lead them to step up and take responsibility when others shy away, and their humility and approachability will lead others to be drawn to them.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, describes a great leader as being “a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.” He refers to these traits as a “duality” because while modesty and humility emphasize the smallness of the self, will and fearlessness awaken the greatness that lies within. Great leaders have the ability to excel in both of these areas.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa (19th century Europe) always carried two slips of paper – one in the right pocket and one in the left. On one paper was written the Talmudic statement, the entire world was created just for me (Sanhedrin 38a). On the other paper was written the words of Abraham, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). In this way, the rabbi was reminded that there are times to step forward, and times to step back.

Today, task a close friend to regularly give you constructive criticism and commit to accepting it with humility. This is the best way to maintain healthy self esteem without becoming overly self important.

Dr. Abraham J. Twerski