When it comes to peak performance, humility may not be the first quality that enters your mind as being vital to achieving the goal of becoming your best. But as you will soon learn, it is indispensable on a neurological level.
In an interview I heard last year with an executive who is responsible for hiring CEO’s for one of the country’s largest development groups, the person was asked what is one of the qualities you most look for in a leader. In addition to self-awareness, the person responded vulnerability and a willingness to acknowledge flaws and mistakes.
Humility and Achieving Flow
The executive stated if the potential CEO did not have a sufficient level of humble self-confidence this scared him. He went on to say, “In business, you are going to make mistakes. This is inevitable. A leader needs to be able to respond with effective action the minute he recognizes the need for a course correction. If a manager does not have an adequate sense of self, they often attempt to shift responsibility or conceal the error, which can be disastrous to the business.”
Furthermore, when a leader lacks humility, they create an unsafe environment for their employees or team to share ideas and access their creative potential. I’ve written in many previous articles about the necessity of learning how to access flow states to achieve your peak performance. There are seventeen identified flow triggers. Ten of these are activated socially. When a leader is more concerned with their self-image than with developing individuals potential, they create an environment that eliminates these social flow triggers.
How Humility Triggers Dopamine
One of the three external flow triggers is what is referred to as a “rich environment”. This is a setting that is comprised of novelty, complexity, and uncertainty. According to Dr. James Olds from the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University:
“Humility is a potent flow hack. When you’re arrogant and egotistical you’re shutting out complexity, novelty, and unpredictability to preserve a distorted self-image. Any incoming information that could lead to self-doubt is stamped out. It’s a massive data reduction.”
“Humility moves in the other direction, it opens us up and increases incoming information. As a result, there is more opportunity for pattern recognition, more dopamine, and less need for judgmental metacognition.”
Negative Leaders Are Ineffective Leaders
Think about that for a moment. Your brain will block awareness of things that could potentially threaten your self-image. Most of us have experienced the negative impact of an owner or manager who attempts to conceal their lack of self-worth by overcompensating with arrogance, condescension, and intimidation.
Not only is this hurtful and abusive, but it is highly ineffective to both the individual and the organization. In addition, to the impact your brain eliminating data from the environment has on performance, it affects motivation as well.
Dopamine and Learning
Your brain scans the environment looking for patterns. This has evolutionary value: the more you can understand how things are linked and learn from them, the greater your chance of survival. As a result, your brain releases dopamine every time it recognizes a pattern. It wants more dopamine and goes on a search to identify more patterns. This feels good and is highly motivating.
Dopamine is not only associated with pleasure but with learning. This is why learning can be pleasurable for so many of us; it feels good to learn. I have no doubt if you are reading this article, you are the type of person who loves to learn. Receiving these dopamine hits for pattern recognition is highly energizing and begins to feed on itself.
Approach versus Avoidant Mindset
This also develops what is referred to as an approach mentality versus and avoidant one; playing to win not to lose. Likewise, stress narrows your field of awareness. If your primary goal is protecting your ego, not only will your brain censor incoming information it will hyper focus on things that could be threats, excluding much of the rest of what could be attended to.
Understanding the neuroscience behind this phenomenon allows you to harness your biochemistry for success rather than having your biology work against you. In addition, to everything mentioned thus far, if you are ego-driven versus mastery-driven, your primary motivators will likely be external rewards, such as money and status. Every bit of research clearly shows this will not only prevent you from achieving your ultimate potential but will lead to a lack of fulfillment as well. What good is material success if it leaves you dissatisfied and empty?
Great Leaders Are Humble
In terms of leadership, one of your primary roles is developing others into reaching their full potential. If they are a threat to your self-worth, you will block their growth if it triggers feelings of inadequacy or endangers your position as a leader. I will be forever grateful to one of my first mentors, Dr. Phil Henry. At one point in my supervision, he told me I had surpassed him, and he didn’t believe there was anything else he could teach me. His example of humility and selflessness was probably one of the biggest lessons he imparted to me. Thank you so much Dr. Henry.
The work I do with my partner, Paul Adams, for Master The Key and The Key Podcast is driven by our desire to bring science-driven information and resources to help others achieve their full potential and peak performance. I hope this article has reached this goal and motivates you to realize and apply the importance of developing humility as part of your peak performance arsenal.
Feel free to send me any questions you may have or schedule a time to speak to me directly at
John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.
John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance.