When asked to list the essential qualities any successful leader should possess, most people will probably be quick to use words like innovative, flexible, inspiring, bold, or ambitious. They might stress that good leaders must have excellent communication skills or an ability to think critically and listen.
There’s one quality, though, that probably won’t show up on many people’s lists: humility.
Why Humility Matters
Believe it or not, humility is one of the most important things a leader can possess. Without humility, they will struggle to build successful teams, overcome adversity, and adapt to changing circumstances to keep their business moving forward. Humility is also crucial for creating a healthy workplace culture that allows talented people to make the most of their potential.
A humble leader has a high degree of self-awareness, which allows them to see that they don’t have all the answers or the best way to solve every problem. Rather than doggedly sticking to what they think they know, these leaders are willing to examine their own biases and preconceived notions. They take to heart an old saying attributed to Confucius: “The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.”
Humility and Resilience
Failures and setbacks are inevitable in any business. The best leaders accept that they will fail from time to time, but they also see these failures as a learning opportunity. Rather than becoming fixated upon doing something “their way,” they are willing to consider alternatives and change their approach in the future. This helps them to be more resilient in the face of difficult challenges and disappointing outcomes.
Humility Makes Collaboration Possible
A leader who claims to have all the answers also tends to be a micro-manager. After all, if they know the best way to do everything, they don’t have much need for innovative or talented team members. They just need a bunch of robots to do what they’re told. And when the expected results don’t materialize, they’re more likely to place the blame on execution rather than their leadership. Humble leaders, however, create space for collaboration. They understand the benefit of empowering people to develop their own innovative solutions rather than following rote instructions.
Humility Builds Trust
A humble leader understands the value of integrity and credibility. They don’t set themselves apart from others and are willing to take accountability for their actions. More importantly, they don’t take credit for other people’s accomplishments as a way of making themselves look better. When employees know a leader is going to treat them fairly and be honest with them, they are more likely to be engaged in their work and committed to the organization’s goals. Taking a humble approach to these relationships makes it much easier to build the trust necessary to sustain them.
Humility Makes Change Easier
Implementing major changes in an organization is one of the greatest challenges any leader can face. While a resourceful leader may be able to develop and introduce a comprehensive plan for change, they may find it difficult to secure buy-in from the people most directly impacted by those changes. Humility can be especially valuable in these situations. Since they often lack direct experience with every aspect of the company, leaders may not fully understand the implications of proposed changes. By consulting key stakeholders and taking the time to consider their perspectives and solutions, humble leaders can develop more effective change management strategies and build a strong base of support at the same time.
How Success Can Undermine Humility
Unfortunately, many leaders find it difficult to be humble in the face of success. Whether it’s a star executive climbing up the corporate ladder or a groundbreaking entrepreneur moving from one success to another, a string of career wins can often cause people to overvalue their own strengths and minimize both their weaknesses and other factors that contributed to their success (such as luck or support from others).
In reality, however, the most successful executives have little in common with these stereotypes. Research has found that 45 percent of CEOs have experienced a major career setback at some point, usually involving a significant loss of shareholder value. The same trend holds true with many successful tech entrepreneurs, most of whom are middle-aged and have experienced a variety of ups and downs throughout their careers. These leaders have the humility to admit that they may not have all the answers and that their success is often due as much to the people around them as to their own abilities.
While humility may not be the first item on the list when it comes to essential leadership qualities, it is crucial for any leader who hopes to build innovative, collaborative teams and foster the resilience necessary to overcome adversity. By having the courage to admit they don’t always have all the answers, leaders can build trust and empower others to make the most of their talents.
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A lifelong serial entrepreneur and community leader, Mark Stagen, Founder of XLN, started his first company at age 15 and hasn't looked back. Since then, he’s founded, and later sold, several successful companies, including Telecore and Emerald Health Services, which have generated over $1 billion in combined revenues. Mark also founded the Youth Business Alliance, a non-profit organization that works with High Schools in economically challenged areas to educate, motivate and inspire the students on business, entrepreneurship and career development.
Mark has received numerous business and community awards including: EY Entrepreneur of the Year and Inc. 500. He is actively involved in YPO and has served in many leadership roles including Chapter Chair and Regional Chair. Mark received his BA in three years from Yale University, was a member of the Yale Football Team and is an Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at the USC Marshall School of Business.