Humility—the Most Underrated Leadership Quality

All of the books I have written have been about the topic of leadership in one way or another. Some more directly than others. The Drucker book is all about leadership. Leading others, leading markets, leading companies. One of my earlier books—What the Best CEO’s Know—profiled seven CEOs and seven leadership characteristics they all had in common.  

It is clear now that I left one trait out.

Peter Drucker taught me that in one day.

I have learned that humility is one of the most underrated of all leadership qualities. Authors often write of character, integrity, compassion—and all have something to do with humility. However, Webster’s Dictionary defines humility as “the quality or state of being humble; and defines humble as “not proud or haughty; not arrogant or assertive; reflecting, expressing, or offered in a spirit of deference.”   

As the world and economic climate seems to get more complex, so does the importance of humility. Certainly there is much to humble us all in these turbulent times. All one has to do these days is take a look at his 401K to get a little humility, but that’s the least of it. Millions of our fellow citizens face far worse, like foreclosures of their homes and loss of their jobs. We are also at war not with one country, but two. The number of our enemies (such as members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups) has never been higher. In my relatively few years on this planet, I can think of no time of greater uncertainty than the one facing us now. That’s a lot to be humble about.    

We have had exceptional leaders who were imbued with great humility. In the political arena, leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman were examples of two leaders who typified it. From humility springs accountability, as evidenced by Truman’s “the buck stop’s here” leadership philosophy.

We have also had great business leaders with great humility. Three that come to mind who were profiled by me in earlier works are Sam Walton (Wal-Mart), Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines), and Andy Grove (Intel). In the case of Intel’s co-founder Andy Grove, he became more humble when his company was almost crushed by the Japanese—forcing Grove and Intel to abandon the company’s key product (memory chips). It’s easier to get humble when you and the company you create face the abyss.

For us non-CEO types, humility is no less important, particularly in the workplace. That’s even more true for those that manage or supervise other people. I have always believed that there is a covenant—an implied contract—that exists between a company and the people they employ. On the employee’s end, he or she must put in a full day’s work, have a positive attitude, and make the kind of contribution that can help the company achieve its goals.         

On the employer’s side, handing over a pay check is the least of it. An employer must create a positive work environment, offer opportunities for advancement, and make sure the people they put in positions of power are mature, responsible, competent, and yes, humble. In my 27-odd years working for companies large and small, I have always thrived when working for a humble boss. Conversely, when I have worked for autocratic bosses who suffer from hubris, sooner or later things turned bad. Working for humble bosses has always helped to spark my performance. 

The lessons here? Well, you can’t often choose your boss but should you find yourself in that position (between jobs with multiple job offers), select the humble boss, other things being equal. If you are a manager or executive, you can indeed choose your employees, and the same advice applies here. 

Keep coming back to this site to learn more about the leadership qualities that are the real difference makers.  



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