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Humility in leadership: The unsung skill of great leaders

March 29, 2022 - 15 min read

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What is humility in leadership?

Why is humility in leadership important?

How do leaders develop humility?

Move forward as a more humble leader

When you think about great leadership, what traits come to mind? Chances are, you’re thinking of a strong confident leader with a host of admirable qualities. Like intelligence, charisma, innovativeness, and a willingness to put in the hard work necessary to get things done. 

But there’s another leadership trait that many successful leaders have in common — and that’s humility in leadership.

Now, if you’re thinking “Humility? Really?” we get it. Humility isn’t the most common trait associated with well-known business leaders. (Let’s be honest — you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would call Steven Jobs humble.) 

But the fact that humility and effective leadership aren’t always commonly associated doesn’t mean they’re not deeply linked. Humble people have a host of qualities that actually make them better, more effective leaders — like a willingness to admit (and embrace!) their weaknesses and ask for help when they need it.

Plus, the work environment and the business environment are also changing — a lot. Employees have different expectations of their leaders, today. And what it takes to profitably deliver value to customers changes constantly. A leader who has all the answers and always has to be right isn’t going to cut it. 

To be effective today, a leader has to be skilled at including and drawing out contributions from many sources. They have to be always curious and learning. Learning requires humility.

So, if you want to be better for your people, lean into humility as a leader. But leaning into humility won’t just make you a good leader. Humility has other benefits, too, like better listening skills and higher levels of compassion. 

When you embrace humility in leadership, in the process of becoming a better leader?

You just might become a better person.

That’s a win-win-win for everyone.

So what, exactly, is humility in leadership? Why is humility in leaders important? And how can you lean into this trait of humility — and become a better leader in the process?

What is humility in leadership?

The American Psychological Association defines humility as characterized by a low focus on the self, an accurate (not over- or underestimated) sense of one’s accomplishments and worth, and an acknowledgment of one’s limitations, imperfections, mistakes, gaps in knowledge, and so on.

Essentially, humility is the ability to see yourself as you are. You recognize your strengths and successes. But you also understand your weaknesses and limitations.

As a leader, this can be hugely helpful. You don’t assume that you always have the answer or know the best way forward. You know this can have a negative impact on your business and team members. Instead, as a humble leader, you can recognize when and where you may need help or outside input.

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One important thing to note? Humility sometimes gets confused with a lack of confidence — but that’s simply not true. Humble leaders can be (and typically are!) fully confident in their skills and abilities. They know what they do well and what they bring to the table. They just also know their blind spots and where they may fall short — and aren’t embarrassed or ashamed to admit it.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to humility in leadership. But there are certain qualities that humble leaders tend to have in common, including:

  • A desire to learn. Because humble leaders don’t over-inflate their own abilities, they recognize that there’s always more to learn. This student mentality means they’re always looking to learn new things — and that culture of learning often trickles down to their teams.
  • The ability to reveal what they don’t know. It’s one thing to want to learn and be ok with making mistakes. For leaders, it’s equally important to make that visible and model it for their teams. Humble leaders aren’t afraid to show vulnerability by saying, “Here are the things I don’t know or don’t understand. Can you help me?” To be more effective, the humble leader pairs vulnerability with asking good questions that frame the problem and draw out new information.
  • Solid listening skills. Again, humble leaders are aware that there is plenty they don’t know. That typically manifests as a willingness to listen to other people and consider their ideas. An effective leader uses different types of listening.
  • A focus on collaboration. Humble leaders recognize their limitations. And they know that to overcome those limitations, they’ll need to work with other people. Not only does this make them more open to receiving feedback, but it also fosters a collaborative spirit across their teams.

    This type of collaboration at work can lead to better outcomes. (For example, increased innovation, improved team performance, and a more positive working environment.) This is even more important with hybrid or virtual teams.
  • More authenticity. Humble leaders have a clear understanding of who they are, what they bring to the table, and the areas that present growth opportunities. They’re not trying to act like they have no flaws or weaknesses — and this allows them to be more authentic in a leadership role. When authenticity at work is modeled, great things can happen. 
  • A compassionate leadership style. Humble leaders know they’re not perfect. And because they recognize they’re not perfect, they don’t expect for their team members to be perfect, either. They bring a sense of compassion to their management style and allow space for their teams to learn, grow, and make mistakes.
  • A willingness to admit when they’re wrong. Humble leaders don’t just create space for their team to make mistakes. They also recognize that they’re capable of getting it wrong — and have no problem admitting it when they do.

Humility in leadership can manifest in different ways in different people. But at the core, it’s about recognizing that being a leader doesn’t make you invincible. And that you, like every other person, have areas where you can grow, change, and improve.

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Humble leadership key takeaways

  • Humility isn’t always the first trait associated with leadership — but it’s an extremely important one.
  • Humble leaders have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. They don’t think that they’re more or less capable than they actually are.
  • Humility and confidence are not mutually exclusive. Humble leaders can be confident in their strengths and abilities. But they can also recognize gaps, challenges, and growth opportunities. It’s not either-or!
  • Humility leads to better listening, increased collaboration, and a more compassionate leadership style. It creates more authenticity and a constant drive to learn. These qualities lead to better outcomes, both for the leaders and their teams.
  • Humble leaders aren’t afraid to make mistakes. They know that mistakes lead to growth — and they create space for their teams to do the same.

Why is humility in leadership important?

Humility is an important skill when you’re in a leadership role. But why, exactly, is it so essential?

There are a number of reasons humility is one of the most important leadership competencies, including:

  • It makes you more accessible and relatable to your team. No one wants to approach an arrogant leader. When you embrace humility in leadership, it makes you seem more approachable and accessible to your team. This is part of creating a culture of inclusion and belonging.
  • It helps you innovate. Humble leaders are more open to other people’s insights and ideas. When you can appreciate and build on others’ ideas, you generate better solutions and increase innovation.
  • It helps you gain influence. According to research outlined in the Harvard Business Review, employees are more drawn to humble leaders. They find leaders who underrate themselves more effective than leaders that overrate themselves.

    In other words, employees are more likely to respect a humble leader than an arrogant or overconfident one. And that respect can help you gain influence with your team.
  • It leads to better outcomes. According to research published in the Journal of Management, humility drives better outcomes. Humble leadership inspires more effective teams, increased collaboration, and more flexibility.

Bottom line? Humility in leadership is important because it makes you a better leader — and leads to better results across the board.

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How do leaders develop humility?

Some people are born with humility. And if that’s you, chances are, humility in leadership comes naturally.

But if you’re not a person that has natural humility, you’re going to have to work to actively infuse humility into your leadership style.

So how, exactly, do you do that? Let’s take a look at key things leaders can do (or not do!) to practice humility in leadership:

  • Humble leaders DO ask for help
  • Humble leaders DON’T act like they have all the answers
  • Humble leaders DO admit when they make a mistake
  • Humble leaders DON’T shame their employees when they make a mistake
  • Humble leaders DO listen and remain open to other people’s ideas, opinions, and insights
  • Humble leaders DON’T close themselves off to outside input
  • Humble leaders DO treat their teams with kindness, compassion, and respect
  • Humble leaders DON’T try to manage their teams through fear, aggression, or intimidation
  • Humble leaders DO recognize there’s always more to learn — and take action to continue their own learning journey
  • Humble leaders DON’T act like they have all the answers
  • Humble leaders DO look for ways to recognize and celebrate their team’s accomplishments and contributions
  • Humble leaders DON’T try to take the credit for themselves
  • Humble leaders DO hold themselves accountable when things go wrong
  • Humble leaders DON’T try to shift blame to others, particularly their team members
  • Humble leaders DO put the needs of their team first
  • Humble leaders DON’T prioritize themselves over their team members

Humility may or may not come naturally to you. And that’s ok! Knowing what humility in leadership looks like (and what it doesn’t look like) is the first step — and from there, it’s about getting the support you need.

Larry McAllister, VP of Global Talent, NetApp, shares how looking at team members as the whole person can help foster desired leadership capabilities, included humility. With BetterUp, NetApp has been able to develop leadership mindsets within its organization. 

Move forward as a more humble leader

Reaching your full potential as a leader isn’t about reading the right leadership books or taking the best leadership seminar. It’s about developing the leadership values you need to do your best work and inspire your team to do the same.

And if you’re looking to develop those values, humility in leadership is a great place to start. BetterUp can provide objective guidance and help you develop the skills you need to embrace humility at work. So do the work and stay humble. Your team (and yourself!) will thrive as a result.

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Published March 29, 2022

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