Ask a group of people to provide a list of essential leadership qualities and there will surely be a number of traits that show up on everyone’s list. Words like decisive, innovative, agile, and inspiring are just a few examples that likely come to mind. There is one word, however, that might not be immediately obvious: humble. In many cases, the archetype of the strong, charismatic leader is at odds with the concept of humility.
It turns out, however, that humility is one of the most important traits of successful leaders. When a leader lacks personal humility, they will struggle to build high-functioning teams and create a healthy workplace culture that encourages engagement and retention.
The Importance of Humility in Leadership
Humility Builds Resilience
At one point or another, every leader will encounter failures and setbacks. Successful leaders demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity, which allows them to bounce back and adjust to overcome obstacles. Having a sense of humility allows leaders to be more resilient because they recognize that even their best plans and efforts will sometimes not result in success. These leaders don’t become fixated upon “their way” of doing things, which allows them to be more agile in the face of changing circumstances, disappointment, and unexpected challenges. They view obstacles and failures as learning experiences that will make them more capable and resourceful in the future.
Humility Opens the Space for Collaboration
Leaders who lack humility tend to believe they can tackle every problem single handedly or think everything would be better if they did it themselves. This can create serious problems in a team context where every member is expected to make contributions toward a goal. Effective leaders recognize when they need to defer to others, whether its in cases of pure expertise or familiarity with a subject. By empowering their team members to engage in collaboration with one another, they can bring about better results than would have been possible had they tried to take ownership of everything.
Humility Makes Change Management Easier
Building consensus among team members for important change initiatives is much easier to accomplish when everyone on the team feels like they’ve had their voices heard. Humble leaders recognize that they don’t have all the answers and that major strategic changes will have an impact on everyone in the organization, which makes them more likely to consult their teams before making critical decisions. While a leader may be capable of developing an effective strategy completely on their own, involving other people in the process can make it much easier to secure buy-in when it comes time to put the plan into motion. A humble leader also understands the value of other perspectives and makes an effort to view problems from multiple angles before taking steps to develop a solution, which is a process that could involve many other people. These consulting efforts are an important part of successful change management because team members don’t feel like they’re having a plan forced upon them arbitrarily.
Humility Creates a Foundation For Trust
Integrity and credibility are important qualities for building and sustaining trust in any environment. Leaders who take credit for other peoples’ accomplishments, blame others when things go wrong, and manipulate information to make themselves look better will have a difficult time convincing anyone to trust them. By showing humility in the way they conduct themselves, leaders can establish a good reputation for treating others fairly, being accountable, and communicating honestly. Rather than taking all the credit when things go right, they recognize others and emphasize the performance of the team as a whole. This demonstrates that they’re committed to the team’s success and are always looking to promote the good work of their team members rather than making themselves look good. People can trust them to treat them fairly and honestly, which makes it much easier to build the strong personal relationships that make trust possible.
High emotional intelligence and self-awareness is usually a precondition of leadership humility because these traits allow people to recognize how they’re seen by others and what impact their behavior has on people. Understanding this about themselves makes it easier for humble leaders to empathize with team members and figure out what motivates them. In the course of building relationships, they learn to see situations from the perspective of their team members. Rather than regarding employees like machines, humble leaders treat them in ways that recognize and respect their basic humanity. When it comes time to make a request of someone, humble leaders are in a better position to use influencing strategies because they’ve already built a relationship that doesn’t rely solely upon their position of authority to secure compliance.
A leader may possess a wealth of expertise and skill, but if they lack humility, they will often have difficulty managing people and getting the most out of their teams. When leaders make it clear that they’re out for themselves or that they don’t have anything to learn from other people, they shouldn't be surprised when those people become disengaged and unwilling to comply with their requests. By demonstrating humility in their relationships with others, however, leaders can create a positive environment that makes it easier to build trust and facilitate collaboration.