Why Humility is a Vital Trait for Leaders

1024 576 David DeWolf

As I was preparing for a recent talk on leading by influence, I knew I needed to hit home on why humility is such an important trait in a leader. I would be talking with a group of MBA students at the Hult International School of Business, and I’d learned from their professor that many of the students have entrepreneurial aspirations.

Humility isn’t part of the curriculum in any school that I know of, and it’s not typically high on the totem pole of leadership traits that are valued most by western society. You’re far more likely to read or see business profiles that extol a subject’s intelligence, innovativeness, work ethic, or even devotion to sleep deprivation than you are to read one that touts a leader’s humility.   

For anyone in a leadership position, however, humility is by far one of your most valuable interpersonal skills. This isn’t just an opinion. It’s something I’ve seen borne out repeatedly in my own experience, and a 2015 study from the Journal of Applied Psychology backs it up. 

In that study, 800+ employees at a Fortune 100 health insurance company were surveyed. Researchers found that bosses who showed humility got better performance out of their teams and were considered more likable. The Washington Post summed the study up thusly: “Humble narcissists’ like Steve Jobs make best business leaders, study says.” While I much prefer humble confidence to humble narcissism, let’s chalk one up for humility and look at why it’s such a powerful — and necessary — leadership trait.    

Humility requires an investment in something greater than oneself. 

Teams can do amazing things when nobody cares who gets the credit. As I wrote about in my last post on leading by influence, this lesson was imparted to me early in my career by John Fowler, who at the time was the CTO of the consulting company I was working with. He saw something in me and put me in a leadership position where everyone reporting to me was at least ten years my senior. As he told me then, “This is not about you. This is about making the client successful and about empowering the team around you.” I was ready to run through a brick wall for John at that point, and we all were ready to do the same to help make our client, Chrissy, successful. 

Humility recognizes that one person can’t do it all. 

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the myth of the “genius entrepreneur” is largely just that. There are far more companies that become successful through teamwork, collaboration, and partnership than there are companies that become successful because they’re headed by an Elon Musk or a Jeff Bezos. If you are Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, congratulations! Otherwise, learn to get comfortable collaborating with and handing things off to your executive team so that you can work on the business rather than in the business. 

Humility makes it okay to say, “I don’t know,” or “I need help.”  

No matter how seasoned an executive you are, eventually, you’re going to find yourself wading into unfamiliar waters. Maybe you’re prepping for your first earnings call with the media. Or maybe you’re having the first meeting with the employees of a company you just acquired. It’s so beneficial to have sounding boards that you can go to for help in these situations. I’ve been lucky enough to have great mentors like Mike Detwiler, Mary Dridi, and Jeff Tarr. These are people that I can go to any time I’m feeling stuck. I can almost guarantee that sharing what I’m going through with them and getting their feedback will bring me clarity and get me moving in the right direction.   

Humility allows you to change directions.  

Good ideas rarely, if ever, come out fully formed. Instagram started as an app called Burbn that focused on fine whiskey and bourbon. Twitter sprung from an app called Odeo that allowed people to find and subscribe to podcasts. Slack started as a video game company called Glitch. You don’t have to be “in tech” or be building the next Instagram, Twitter, or Slack to see that smart shifts in direction can be instrumental to a company’s success. Take the same tack with ideas and initiatives. You shouldn’t be married to every idea that leaves your keyboard, just as you wouldn’t think about rubber-stamping every idea that comes your way. 

Wrapping It Up

C.S. Lewis is often credited with writing, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” That quote belongs to Rick Warren, but it does resonate with me. What Lewis actually wrote does as well:

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” 

If you ask me, those are words to live — and lead — by.