We recently discussed characteristics that you seek for in a leader. I’d like to focus on one particular characteristic that I feel all truly great leaders have, regardless of their position. What makes great leaders so, well, great? It is likely a combination of attributes including technical, personal, and high emotional intelligence that make many leaders so great and the type that you want to emulate, but there is one particular attribute that all truly great leaders possess… that being Humility.

Humility is for the Weak

“Humility is associated with a healthy ego, sense of self-worth, high emotional intelligence, and effective leadership.”

I fear that we sometimes view humility as a bad trait, something that makes us weak or insecure, or associated with poor self-esteem. Humility is none of those things and is associated with a healthy ego, sense of self-worth, high emotional intelligence, and effective leadership. One benefit of humble leadership is that these type of leaders make others feel included, unique, and have a sense of belonging. Humble leaders are also found to seek feedback and focus on the needs of others. One result of this is better employee engagement and job performance.

Humility brings with it many other key virtues. Catalystleader.com outlined 10 of these, as listed below.

  1. Trusts others – Willing to trust others even at the risk that they may disappoint.
  2. Sincere Investment – Humble leaders willingly invest in others, raise them up, and mature new leaders.
  3. Gentle, but strong – Humble leaders have learned the balance between being gentle and remaining strong.
  4. Readily Admits Mistakes – Humble leaders are quick to admit fault without casting blame.
  5. Forgives easily – Leadership is filled with disappointment and often at the expense of other’s mistakes. A humble leader quickly forgive others, knowing that they too need forgiving.
  6. Quickly diverts attention – A humble leader is quick to divert attention and recognition to others. They also celebrate the success of others.
  7. Remains thankful – A humble leader is appreciative of the input and contribution of others.
  8. Recognizes limitations – No one can do everything, and a humble leader knows his limitations and isn’t afraid to ask for help.
  9. Shares authority – Humble leaders give out responsibility and authority to people they are leading.
  10. Invites feedback – A humble leader wants to learn from their mistakes and wants to see continual improvement.

In addition to the list above, I would add that a humble leader accepts ambiguity, self-reflects, and supports others in their job (sometimes by simply trusting them to do their job). There are distinct connections to humility and an effectiveness to leading others.

The Harvard Business Review stated in an article, The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders, that “Employees who perceived altruistic [humble] behavior from their managers also reported being more innovative… Moreover, they were more likely to report engaging in team citizenship behavior, going beyond the call of duty, [and] picking up the slack for an absent colleague…”

Google’s SVP of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, once said that your way of thinking should be “what can we do together to problem solve.” The University of Washington Foster School of Business concluded that “humble people are more likely to be high performers in individual and team settings, and they also tend to make the most effective leaders.” They continue by stating, “humble leaders foster learning-oriented teams and engage employees. They also optimize job satisfaction and employee retention…” Those seem like major wins!

Becoming Humble

“You can’t fake humility!”

Michelle M. Smith, Vice President of Business Development at O.C. Tanner, stated in an article, Humility Is Key to Effective Leadership & High Performance, that “Humility inspires loyalty, helps to build and sustain cohesive, productive teamwork, and decreases staff turnover.” In Jim Collins book Good to Great, he found that effective leaders maintain a paradoxical blend of humility and will.

So how can you become more humble and ultimately a more effective leader? Here are some suggestions (some of which are suggested by Michelle M. Smith):

  1. Know what you don’t know – As a leader, you must learn to rely on others and their skills and experience.
  2. Give thanks and recognition – As a leader, you must recognize the contributions of others. You would not be where you are without the support of others. Remember, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
  3. Embrace and promote service – Employees (and customers) quickly figure out which leaders are concerned with helping them succeed and which are looking for personal successes at others’ expense. You can’t fake humility!
  4. Listen – Humble leaders listen to people. I once told my wife (jokingly), “I heard you, but I wasn’t listening.” She wasn’t impressed with my joke, but all joking aside, active listening takes a real self-sense of humility.
  5. Be curious – Humble leaders seek learning, growth, and improvement from themselves and others around them.
  6. Demonstrate ambition – This might seem like a contradictory attribute to humility, but humble leaders have ambitions that are not self-centered. Rather, they are for the good of the organization or the betterment of others. They also celebrate success by giving credit to factors outside themselves (usually their team).

Most of us are not born with humility. Learning to become a humble leader will take time and effort. There will be people and circumstances that fight against you but by working on the six items above, as well as the 10 attributes of humility also listed, you will become a truly effective and humble leader!



Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Chad Higgins

Chad Higgins

Contributing Author

With 12 years of diverse project management experience, Chad brings a unique perspective to PMforToday.com. Whether it was at the start of his career as an ice cream store manager or more recently as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and ITIL leader in the telecommunications arena, Chad has always zeroed in on the kinds of changes that make a business function more effectively. Chad's formal background in process improvement complements his seasoned project repertoire. He's never found a team or process that couldn't improve in some area, and Chad is a firm believer that a healthy company culture is fundamental to any process improvement initiative.


PM for Today has helped me build my personal brand by enabling me to reach a larger audience that otherwise would not have known about my articles and by providing a centralized place for me to share my experiences and interests. My LinkedIn profile views have double since becoming a contributing author on PMforToday.com and I love being part of something larger than myself.

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