Humility: The One Thing You Need to Be A Great Leader

What makes a leader truly great?

Is there a single character trait that determines whether or not a person will lead well over time?

This is a complex and difficult question, yet in spite of this, research paints a surprisingly consistent picture.

Take for example the “Good To Great” study undertaken by researcher and business author Jim Collins.[1] This book (published in 2001) has aged, yet its findings remain relevant today.

Collins and his research team conducted an extensive five year study to answer a simple question: “Can a good company become a great company, and if so, how?” Using quantitative metrics, they selected eleven companies that fulfilled the standard of being “great”, having started as average companies before; a) hitting an inflection point, b) exceeding the market by at least 300%, and c) sustaining this performance for at least 15 years.

Tough criteria to fulfil. Yet a perfect study to discover what type of leadership makes a good company great.

When Collins and his team examined all the data, a statistically significant trend emerged across all great companies. They all had a CEO (and other senior leaders) with a very unusual character trait. This trait was found without exception in ALL good to great leaders. And it was NOT found in comparative company leaders who delivered short term (sometimes spectacular), short lived results.

The character trait? Humility.

Yes, that’s right… not intelligence, charisma or work ethic, but humility.

Unexpected? Well, from his own account, Collins and his research team were surprised as well.

Humility is not generally celebrated as a key leadership trait within corporate culture. It is under-valued, poorly understood and rarely recruited against when selecting senior leaders. Scan any newsfeed and you’re likely to read about powerful, smart, charismatic, tough, hard-working, visionary leaders. In contrast, we rarely read about, or celebrate the humble leader — those who are under-stated, others-centred, self-effacing, thoughtful and self-restrained.

What is Humility?

Humility is misunderstood.

We mistake humility for weakness, fragility and powerlessness — something akin to Cinderella talking to mice while trapped in the attic. And while serving your step-sisters might sound noble, it’s not humility — it’s humiliation — and the difference is very important.

Humble people do not look down on themselves, and they are not weak. They are secure in their self-worth and therefore redirect their power — their intelligence, money and status — for the good of others. They are resilient, yet malleable; wise, yet gentle; determined, yet kind. They are unwavering in their resolve to do what is right. They make hard decisions if necessary to bring about change. Ultimately, this is about other people. It is not about status or ego or self-preservation, but about team maturity, cultural health and client outcomes.

According to ancient historian, Dr John Dickson,[2] humility is:

“The noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself, and is marked by a willingness to hold power in the service of others.”

Ultimately, to be humble is to use one’s power for the good of others.

The Logic of Humility

Best-selling business author, Patrick Lencioni,[3] suggests that humility is an essential virtue for anyone leading others:

“Great team players lack excessive ego or concerns about status. They are quick to point out the contributions of others and slow to seek attention for their own. They share credit, emphasise team over self, and define success collectively rather than individually. It is no great surprise, then, that humility is the single greatest and most indispensable attribute of being a team player.”

Indispensable attribute? That’s a big call, yet there’s research behind this statement. In leadership, as in life, humility is ultimately logical. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Trust: Who are you more likely to trust? A leader who is looking out for number one, or a leader who is looking out for you and your team?
  2. Staff Engagement: Who are you more likely to follow? A manager who is self-motivated and driven by ego, or a manager who uses their power to help you and your team succeed — even at their own expense?
  3. Innovation: Who is more likely to bring out your creative best? A leader who blames you when things go wrong, or a leader who accepts the blame when you try something new that doesn’t work?
  4. Informed Decisions: Who are you going to share your ideas with? A leader who is competitive and has an answer for everything, or a leader who is curious and approachable — even when hearing the truth is hard?
  5. Staff Retention: Who are you likely to give 110% of your energy for? A manager who feels threatened by your talent, then takes the credit you deserve, or a manager who equips and encourages you to become your best, then gives you the credit?

Humility Is Hard Won

Humility is valuable in every way, but also a hard won virtue. Dickson writes:

“Humility enhances the ordinary and makes the great even greater.”[4]

Humility is not a strategy. You can’t fake humility — well, at least not for long. You can’t add “humble” to your CV (or LinkedIn profile for that matter). It’s not a program to employ, a posture to manipulate or worse still, a technique to use at interview. Humility is a virtue that takes years — often decades — to develop. It is the quiet, almost silent by-product of a contemplative, self-sacrificial, others-centred life.

You see, it’s almost impossible to be humble if you are fearful, insecure or unclear about your identity as a person. Who you are on the inside — the quality of your inner life — influences your behaviour on the outside. No matter how well hidden, insecurities always come out. That’s why humble people pay attention to their inner life. They develop habits of self-reflection, spiritual enquiry and life-long learning. This is how they develop the self-esteem, self-awareness, ability and inner security needed to habitually disregard themselves in the service of others.[5]

Valuable — yes. Easy — no!

Think Of Yourself Less

Humble people are hard to find. They activate and equip others to function as a team. They lead from the inside out. They use their power for the good of others and make a difference over time. That’s why they make such great leaders!

C.S. Lewis says it best when he writes:

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”[6]

At the end of the day, humility in leadership is logical, it’s valuable and it works. It is also undervalued and overlooked.

Next time you look to recruit a person for your team, especially someone who has the power to lead others, ask yourself — are they humble?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Jim Collins (2001): Good To Great – Why Some Companies Make The Leap… And Others Don’t; Harper Collins Publishers, New York.
  2. John Dickson (2011): Humilitas – A Lost Key To Life, Love and Leadership; Zondervan, Michigan, p.24.
  3. Patrick Lencioni (2016): The Ideal Team Player – How to Recognise and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues; Jossey-Bass; New Jersey, p.157.
  4. John Dickson (2011): Humilitas – A Lost Key To Life, Love and Leadership; Zondervan, Michigan, p.29.
  5. Humble people often don’t see themselves as being humble. Paradoxically, they have a low opinion of themselves, and a high opinion of themselves, all at the same time. The first step in the pursuit of humility, ironically, is to recognise that I am not humble — instead I am often self-centred, proud and unkind. Once you grasp this, you are probably on your way to becoming humble! C.S. Lewis writes: “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”
  6. C.S. Lewis (1952): Mere Christianity; Harper Collins Publishers, New York.

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