Humility in Leadership: The MIT Principle


I just sat and listened. Bob, the director, talks about how the universities wanted to give back to the society. In fact, this prestigious university opened its doors to young engineering students who were a part of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). Faculty and staff were all communicating that the impossible was possible. The place was the highly regarded Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory. Everyone goes by their first names, doctorate or not. Egos are checked at the door (well everyone is brilliant).

One MIT staff member explains this reality, “Everyone here is smart.” If someone comes in cocky, there is someone who is smarter than him in another area. That keeps people ‘in check’. I was a little stunned. I had imagined an MIT culture where innovative mavericks were left to their own devices independent of others to produce incredible solutions for society. Yet, sharing, service, and working together appeared to carry a lot of weigh on campus.

Many people feel that leadership is about being the brightest and sharpest ‘cat on the block.’ At times, I have worked with some of the most brilliant people in the world, having federal oversight of two national laboratories in my career. This article examines the concepts of humility in today’s leaders. Additionally, the MIT Principle is developed so that all leaders understand that even high achievers need a sense of humility to work in high performing organization.


Even brilliant students at MIT need humility in order to be successful on campus. The MIT Principle, as I dubbed, can be an important lesson to learn. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a special place filled with innovators and overachievers. MIT is a private institution which was founded in 1861.1 In 2016, MIT was ranked 7th best university in the nation in the 2016 edition of Best Colleges is National Universities.

The school’s mascot is a beaver, which MIT chose because of its “remarkable engineering and mechanical skill and its habits of industry.” High achievers from across the nation flock to MIT to gain great tutorage in their disciplines and make their market on society with their ‘geniusness.’ MIT boasts in highly regarded programs in engineering, management, and sciences. Additionally, research expenditures generally exceed $650 million each year. 2

In MIT culture, students are expected to be leaders in their respective fields and problem solvers with new novel ideas. Yet, collaboration is a high principle at MIT. In fact, sharing and service are part of this culture. Students, faculty, and support institutions are expected to work together for a common good. Given this scenario, each student must find a valuable contribution that he/she can make to the student project, teams, and industry collaborations. Even the most brilliant individual at MIT must apply some humility in being successful because they must submit to the good of the organization instead of their own selfish ambitions. The MIT Principle states that in order to achieve overall success for the organization or team, individuals at some point will have to sacrifice their own personal goals for the organization.

Dr. Green’s Visit to MIT (Animoto video) – Click Here

Humility is a character trait that will serve leaders well in a knowledge-based economy. Humility can be defined as ‘a modest or low view of one’s own importance.’ When one thinks about humility, one of the first adjectives that come to mind is humble or humbleness. Some ideas come to mind about a humble individual; not proud or arrogant. If you are a sport fan, you have probably seen star athletes that ‘show boat’ and bring attention to themselves that they are great.

Certainly, some of the greatest like Muhammad Ali used this attitude to build his own confidence. Ali noted, “At home I am a nice guy; but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.” Humility often requires a person to defer or submit to other people.

Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan theologian in the 18th century, examined the matter of humility in human existence; he defined a humble man as one who is sensitive to his natural distance from God.3 Thus, man has a dependency on God that shows humans their insufficiency of their own wisdom and power. Edwards explained: “Some persons are always ready to level those above them down to themselves, while they are never willing to level those below them up to their own position. But he that is under the influence of true humility will avoid both these extremes.


On the one hand, he will be willing that all should rise just so far as their diligence and worth of character entitled to them; and on the other hand, he will be willing that his superiors should be known and acknowledged in their place, and have rendered to them all the honors that are due to them.” Leaders are no exception. Leadership guru, John Maxwell notes, “A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit.” The following are ways that leaders can cultivate a humble spirit:

* Have a faith that supersedes your wisdom.
* Learn lessons from each defeat, dejection, and heartache in which you have no control and are forced to humility.
* Respect others regardless of their position and title in your organization.
* Seek wise counsel from folks you trust and who have an interest in your success.
* Learn how to listen to others.

As organizations research ways to be more effective and productive, leaders explore how they can navigate uncertainty. Leaders can start by applying some humility in the manner that they relate to their employees, managers, and other stakeholders. Like MIT, individuals often need to control their own personal ambitions in light of the organization. If organizations are willing and capable to infuse their organizations with a good sense of humility, they will be infusing their organizations with a healthy trait that will serve them well in the current climate of uncertainty. I pray that it’s not too late for them!

© 2016 by Daryl D. Green


“Massachusetts Institute of Technology” by

“Jonathan Edwards” by


Sustaining Ethical Behavior

Americans are increasingly worried and cynical of today’s leaders. Traditional institutions are losing favor, leaving citizens unable to trust their neighbors, churches, and government.

Additionally, America has a history of unethical behavior by leaders. The private sector has been riddled with tons of examples (i.e. Enron, Exxon, etc.) of unethical behavior on Wall Street. Furthermore, political parties market family values and personal integrity like they are selling used automobiles.

In the quest for power and their own personal ambition, many government officials have been drawn to deadly vices that have led to their personal self-destruction. Graham Tomblin, The Seven Deadly Sins, notes this natural selfish behavior has destroyed families, friendships, happiness, and peace of mind.

These moral break downs can seep into other factions of the political landscape. For example, in 1998, the media reported the sexual exploits of Democratic President Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky. However, political scandals are nothing new for the federal government. During the months of May to August of 2007, Republican President Ronald Reagan’s administration was suspected of trading weapons for hostages in the Iran-Contra hearings.

This topic explores the American political environment and how amoral behavior associated with ‘seven-deadly sins’ impact contemporary organizational culture.   For this discussion, we evaluate Congressman Mark Foley’s scandal. Foley was a Florida congressman, who was reported to have sent sexually explicit emails to male pages who were high school students.

He abruptly resigned on September 29, 2006, which set-off a political landmine. House Republicans had to do damage control, whileDemocrats went on the attack. Some Democrats claimed that some House leaders knew for months of Foley’s inappropriate behavior. House SpeakerDennis Hastert found himself on the political hot seat. Hastert declared he knew nothing about Foley’s actions, but others disagreed with his proclamation. Hastert continued his claim of innocence as he asked the JusticeDepartment to investigate this matter.

Because of Foley’s resignation, he couldn’t be punished by his peers. Foley also apologized publicly, sought treatment for his alcoholic addicted, and pointed to a childhood abuse experience by a priest as a cause of his problem. Once again, Americans were asked to address another ethical issue among government officials.

In many cases, unethical decisions made by individuals who allow their ethical principles to influence their decision-making, led to laws being broken or the compromise of organizational values.  Moral principles, values, or beliefs about what is “right” or “wrong” are known as ethics.

Consequently, individuals who make decisions outside of the organization’s values sustain their moral principles internally. Ethics and organizational culture can impact the success of an organization. In fact, ethical behavior is directly related to culture.  

In the long-term, unethical behavior impacts an organizations ability to function effectively.  Employees watch what leaders do more than what they say.  Therefore, organizations that want to sustain future success must pay attention to their ethical behavior, at all levels.

Describe your professional experiences with ethical behavior by executives as well as others in the organization. Discuss what can be done to instill good ethical behavior throughout the organization

© 2011 by Daryl D. Green