Why Humility Is The Key Foundation Of True & Sustainable Leadership

by Marc Baloch

We often hear “hire for attitude, train for skill” and, in the world of executive search, it is now widely accepted that soft skills and future potential are as important as hard skills and track record.  

When searching for key leadership attributes we assess for strategic vision, integrity, agile decision making, emotional intelligence, drive-through persistence and openness to change.

But, after close to two decades of working as an executive talent scout, the most vital underpinning attribute is humility. Why, you may ask, and what actually is humility?

It is being modest, deferential and unpresumptuous, while a lack of humility means egoism, arrogance, boldness, pretentiousness and self-importance. 

Humility starts with self-awareness

Humble leaders are self-aware and understand their strengths and weaknesses. They also recognise the relative strengths of others and seek to counteract their own limitations. They are receptive to the opinions of others, ready to test assumptions and willing to admit mistakes.

A humble leader should not be mistaken for a weak one that lacks confidence in his or her own ability or lacks conviction in decision making. As someone once said, “There’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance….it’s called humility. Confidence smiles. Arrogance smirks.”

The famous author CS Lewis sums it up perfectly: “Humility is not about thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less”. It is about being mindful, inclusive and open to ideas. Leaders with humility get the best out of others and enjoy commercial success as a result. 

Leadership is like wine tasting

It’s an unusual analogy, but a humble leader is similar to a wine taster.  There are many facets to wine, from obvious differences in dryness, acidity, body and texture to more subtle differences on the palette. It is the relationship between these elements that makes up the structure of an award winning wine. 

Over time, the wine taster develops an appreciation of the diverse grape varieties that makes a great blend, recognising the contributing elements and understanding his or her own taste. Humble leaders do the same, remaining receptive to eclectic influences and finding the right balance. Charisma is important, but recognising the best talent to draw upon – both high performing and sustainable – goes beyond the superficial. It is like the wine taster enjoying the initial bouquet who savours the long finish before judging character and quality.

The business case for humility v hubris

To some, mindfulness may sound overly soft and woolly, something best left on the psychiatrist’s couch. But those who decry humility in the workplace as vulnerability should think again. Humility has a direct link to business performance and profits. The diagram below shows the chain reaction when egotistical leaders lack humility, resulting in high staff turnover, lacklustre performance and….the death knell for any company….stifled innovation. 


Executive searchers are aware of the danger of the ‘Hubris Cycle’ and are eradicating the arrogance gene from their talent pools. Sometimes it is a question of coaching, as leaders often display the hallmark of humility in their private lives but act differently the moment they enter the office.  While old habits die hard, natural tendencies can be brought to the fore and empathetic leaders who succeed in being themselves will see the results. If they don’t, the millennial workforce coming up through the ranks will quickly spot an unauthentic leader and become disengaged.

Top traits of humility

So what does being ‘humble’ really mean in a business leader? For me, as a headhunter, humility can be summed up in four overlapping characteristics:

 1.   Good listener

That means being genuinely receptive to other opinions, not just paying lip service. Humble leaders accept that they can’t be all-knowing or excel at everything and that complementary views and skills bring real strength. Rather than being a weakness, broad-mindedness brings more power to their elbow.

2.       Deft facilitator

Humble leaders actively seek to bring out the best in others, co-creating ideas in a mutually respectful, consensual team. That does not mean suppressing their own views, but accepting that assumptions must always be tested and that inclusivity leads to better outcomes.
3.       Mindfully transparent

Clearly, a leader needs to display judgement and competence, but nobody is infallible. Admitting mistakes shows humanity and provides an opportunity to react accordingly, turning negatives into positives. All companies accept a degree of risk, without which they would stagnate. Taking calculated risk, and being accountable when it goes wrong, encourages others to adopt the same healthy mindset.
4.       Mentee as well as mentor

Companies nowadays face permanent uncertainty and strategic goals are moving targets. Leaders not only need the courage and conviction to change direction, but the humility to take people with them. That means taking advice, gathering all relevant information, embracing diversity of knowledge and experience, and empowering others to share their perspectives and take joint ownership of strategic change.

Way back in 500 BC, the Chinese philosopher Confucius said that “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues”. That lesson needs to be re-learned by today’s business leaders. The alpha male, ‘rock star‘ leadership style is well beyond its sell-by date. Leaders who switch the ‘Hubris Cycle’ for the ‘Humility Cycle’ will stimulate employee engagement, productivity and innovation – the key ingredients of commercial success.