A Sense of Humility, a Path to Effective Leadership

What makes a great leader? History has highlighted the “power” individual, fuelled by ego, drive and self-worth. Thankfully, times have changed however much more must still be done by both organisations and their talent advisors to highlight the correct traits needed in many of our future leaders.

Today, leaders must demonstrate a myriad of traits, many of which have historically been overlooked when it comes to developing succession plans as well as identifying talent. At the forefront of this list is humility. The benefit of identifying such a characteristic is clear. More inclusive teams, reduced employee turnover and the development of innovative cultures.


Humility and vulnerability are intrinsically linked. Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness. However, in today’s society we numb vulnerability. If leaders cannot be uncomfortably honest about their strengths, weaknesses and need for help, they will struggle to develop trust within their team. Leaders must put aside their shame and fear and lead from the front when it comes to being open and honest if they are looking to demonstrate true humility. Trust will then ensue, which sits at the epicentre of organisational health. Without trust, a team cannot work together efficiently and will, therefore, struggle to reach its true potential.

This historic impression of what makes a good leader has influenced organisations’ succession planning processes. It has influenced what we believe is important when considering applicants. Humility has also fallen second to other traits such as communication and influence. To address this, we must examine our biases, whilst also ensure a holistic re-vamp of our companies’ on-boarding process takes place.


Humility is a trait which many misinterpret as a lack of confidence. Many humble professionals do not regard themselves as natural leaders, questioning their ability and drive. Consequently, they slip through the net when it comes to developing succession protocols. Those who possess such levels of humility do not seek out praise or promotion something, which in turn, helps set them apart from their egocentric peers.

They have a need to achieve based on the greater good of the team, rather than being focused on personal gain. An interest in the company itself and its overall purpose and ambition versus their own personal agenda. If transformation and cultural innovation is regarded as a priority, identifying, nurturing and promoting such individuals is a key step in achieving such goals.

Talent Identification

The link between humility and the perception of being overly passive, submissive or insecure, must be extinguished; less charisma and charm and greater levels of modesty. Charisma has the ability to cover up someone’s fundamental ego issues thus promoting the archetypal “power” leader, full of bravado and allure. When considering one of the most asked questions around gender diversity (the proverbial glass ceiling) it has been suggested that men quite simply have a greater tendency to “bluff”. Whereas the female leader who displays, on average, higher level of emotional intelligence and therefore levels of humility are overlooked. Whilst a generalised statement, it perhaps holds some truth. Re-examining our approach to selection could hold the key to meeting the targets set by the Hampton-Alexander Review (33% female, representation on the combined Executive Committee and their direct reports by the end of 2020).

Identifiable traits

Openness – Rather than feeling the need to consistently promote oneself, humble leaders endorse active listening & rather than attempting to dominate a conversation they’re curious to hear the opinions of others;
Curiosity – They seek insight and new learning; consequently, they are more open to accepting feedback;
Acceptance – An understanding that constructive feedback is the path to improvement;
Engagement – A desire and ability to support those around themselves. The ability to bring together team members working towards a combined objective. In turn, this leads to greater team satisfaction and less staff turnover.


Leaders who practise humility create trust, empower their team, demonstrate greater commitment to the company and develop a team spirit — all of which supports cultural change. Therefore, we must develop how we evaluate, reward and promote such individuals.

“Humility is the true key to success. Successful people lose their way at times. They often embrace and overindulge from the fruits of success. Humility halts this arrogance and self-indulging trap. Humble people share the credit and wealth, remaining focused and hungry to continue the journey of success”.

Rick Pitino, Former NBA American basketball coach

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