I will start off by giving you the answer – humility! Humility is, by far, the most important trait that highly effective leaders have in common. Humility is the foundation by which all other effective leadership principles rest. Humility is defined as a modest or low view of one’s own importance and is based more on the idea that you don’t feel superior or better than others because of what you have, your status or power. And, conversely, it’s not about feeling inferior to others, either. C.S. Lewis famously said, “Humility isn’t about thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”
In this article, we are going to explore 12 traits that humble leaders possess, with the goal of delivering something tangible for the reader to self-evaluate and work on. One must remember that humility is a trait, and some may even consider it a skill that can be worked on, but it cannot be faked. (Credit must be given to Don Reiland and John Maxwell for identifying these 12 traits. I also highly recommend any of Maxwell’s books on leadership, as well as those of Jocko Willink and Simon Sinek, along with many others!)
Trait 1: Not easily embarrassed
A humble leader is not easily embarrassed and has the ability to laugh at themselves, which is always an admirable trait. Don’t be the guy who dishes it out but can’t take it! That truth is only magnified when someone is in a leadership position. In addition, someone who is not easily embarrassed most often has a good balance of self-confidence and self-awareness. Self-confidence is knowing you can get something done, versus self-awareness, which is knowing you can’t get something done or, even more important, recognizing that someone else may be better suited to get that certain something done.
Trait 2: Doesn’t need credit
A humble leader appreciates praise and getting credit for a job well done, but they don’t need it. They are quick to give credit, but never take it if it isn’t given first. Their purpose is to serve for the good of others, and it comes from a genuine place. If not, this becomes humblebragging that produces funny YouTube video spoofs and comedic memes but undercuts any attempts at people actually believing your intentions are true.
Trait 3: Lifts others up
A humble leader lifts others up and does so without being jealous. It is important to note that we all have felt jealous at some point in our lives, and very likely will do so again. The effective leader overcomes this flaw by quickly recognizing this feeling and processing it properly. A common technique I use is to label the feeling out loud as just what it is. Admit that you are feeling jealous about someone or something and recognize that it isn’t helping the situation or making anyone better. Often this helps to reduce that jealousy and makes you more authentic and real to others around you.
If the leader has the self-awareness to know that someone else may be able to do a job just as well as they can, or maybe it is not just as good a job but good enough, they should give the opportunity and the subsequent praise to that other person. This does two important things: It produces self-
confidence in that person, and it raises their view of you as a leader. They will then want to do well by you because they believe you actually care about them personally. How people feel drives motivation, which in turn drives productivity.
Trait 4: Not prone to gossip
A humble leader must resist gossiping. Gossip finds its roots in jealousy, envy and pride, none of which will assist you in being an effective leader. When gossip comes from a leadership position, the consequences are even more severe, because it will create distrust and undermine the perceived intentions of future decision making. We all enjoy joking around the office and job site, and good-natured ribbing of each other makes the day more fun. Humor is widely effective and necessary for a good work environment, but hurt feelings can happen and sometimes aren’t recognized. The leader needs to tread lightly.
Trait 5: Self-confident
A common misconception about humility is that it comes from a place of meekness or weakness. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Humility comes from a place of strength. Humble people are most often extremely self-confident. The reason being, they have the inner self-confidence that prevents the need to boast or get praise, which helps with every aspect of effective leadership. They don’t need to be told they are good enough; they already know it.
Trait 6: Values respect and kindness
Humble leaders show they care. It must be genuine, because fakers can easily be spotted, and that will erode trust and have the opposite effect on those subordinates. Showing respect and kindness to others also prevents the leader from abusing their authority or power.
Trait 7: Inspires trust and teamwork
Having personal goals is a proven and effective way to help generate success, both personally and within a business. However, an effective leader cannot have a personal agenda that counters the best interests of others in the organization. For example, if subordinates feel like you’re sabotaging their efforts for personal gain, such as swooping in on a sale that was someone else’s lead. Your motives should be public and focused on what is best for the group, not for you as an individual. Authenticity encourages authenticity. How a leader does things, like handling mistakes and decision making, is more important than what the leader does. The “how” is always greater than the “what.”
Trait 8: Finds joy in others’ successes
Genuinely finding joy and not jealousy in others’ successes is not only critical for leadership, but it also helps make one likable, and likability should not be underestimated. Likability fosters an environment where mutual respect begins to grow, which is critical when accountability is necessary. When held accountable by someone you like and respect, it tends to lead to improved performance and not animosity. Part of finding joy in others’ successes is recognizing that, while there is nothing wrong with wanting to be great, a leader must recognize that they don’t need to be the best. The opposite is actually true – you want to be surrounded by people who are more talented and better at different things than you – those are the best organizational leaders.
Trait 9: Grateful
Gratitude is the foundation of humility. It is hard to think of yourself less if you don’t appreciate what you have. When someone begins to think they deserve something they don’t have, this leads to a feeling of entitlement. Entitlement is dangerous, because it leads to blame shifting and not taking responsibility for your circumstances. When this behavior comes from someone in a leadership position, it makes it almost impossible for subordinates to feel their leader has their best interests in mind. The leader comes across as if they don’t care about them and their needs, but only about themselves, which is difficult to overcome. After careful self-reflection, if you think you are acting entitled, humble yourself and work on being grateful for what you do have.
Trait 10: Doesn’t need to be right
When a leader’s actions come from a place of humility and being grateful for what they have, the need to be right becomes much less important. A humble leader also recognizes that when someone else is shown to be right and you empower that person to lead on a project, that doesn’t diminish your leadership, it increases it. You have now gone up in that person’s mind, not down. Remember, people tend to rise to the level of responsibility you give them, so empower your team to make decisions. When employees don’t feel empowered, this leads to indecision, and indecision is the Kryptonite to success.
It is important to remember that no one will make a decision if they don’t feel safe to make a mistake. How the leader handles mistakes is critical. A leader must handle mistakes calmly and with a focus on getting better and moving on, not by focusing on what should have been done. Lastly, when the leader doesn’t need to be right, this produces other opportunities for those on the team, which in turn leads to teamwork, and teamwork is critical for business success.
Trait 11: Admits when wrong
A highly effective leader must admit when they are wrong or have made a mistake. Similar to recognizing other people’s good ideas, admitting you have messed up doesn’t decrease your influence over people, it actually increases it by making you more relatable. Remember, authenticity encourages authenticity. It also puts you in a position of providing an example to others about how to handle their own mistakes. If the leader handles screwups in a professional manner, others are more likely to follow suit.
Admitting your own mistakes is only part of the equation though. A good leader must take responsibility for all mistakes within a company. If someone else messed up, you must take the initial mindset that it is your fault because you didn’t provide them with the tools to succeed. Take a deeper dive into this concept with the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink. I highly recommend it.
Trait 12: Good listener
Effective listening is not only a critical skill in effective sales but is also critical for effective leadership. When someone feels they are being listened to and that their input matters, this produces feelings of connection and ownership to the business, which is huge for driving success. While listening, you also must put action to those words. If a good idea is presented, make sure it is acted on, or, if it isn’t going to be, an explanation of why not is critical.
Another benefit of listening is that it enables you to hear and find opportunities for others. These opportunities that are born from someone else’s idea have a significant impact on people’s buy-in and loyalty to the company they work for.
In Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, he found two common traits of CEOs in companies that transitioned from average to superior market performance – an indomitable will to advance the cause of the organization and humility. You see, highly effective leaders recognize that it isn’t about themselves, it is about the group, and if you don’t put others in the group ahead of yourself, it is hard to have high-level business success. As Saint Augustine said, “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”