Humility - a powerful trait of great leaders


Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

"Whisper wins and shout mistakes."

- Reed Hastings, Netflix



At the start of the autumn last year, I had just finished a morning run and was busy checking the log for my distance, time, pace etc. Wow! I had cut 20 seconds per mile from my typical rate. 🥇


Amazing. My Initial reaction was fantastic. I felt great 🚀. I was seeing the rewards for my hard work and dedication, putting in the miles consistently week after week.


Or perhaps something else was going on.


When I started to think about it, the result seemed too good to be true. So what could have contributed to my significant improvement in performance?


Well, the temperature that morning was 5C cooler than my last few weeks of running. Autumnal weather had only recently started after the extension of the British summer. Studies show that for each degree above 15C, the average runner's pace will slow between 4 and 4.5 seconds. Perhaps I wasn't so awesome after all.


Then, the distance seemed off. The Strava app was displaying I had run 0.25 miles further than any prior time for this particular route.


So cooler weather and an inaccurate GPS - the system around me changed and was responsible for "me getting better".


Ok, these two facts swiftly put me in my place.


This can also be true of our business success. There are often external factors such as markets, the macro environment, and the economy that cause an apparent uptick in our performance, where we are just along for the ride.


Correlation does not imply causation.


A positive or negative association between two variables does not necessarily mean that a change in one of the variables is causing the change in the other.


This leads us to humility and why it is an essential trait to being a successful leader.

Humility - why is it so important?


None of us is perfect. We all make mistakes. Yet many people will not admit their faults or own up to mistakes. Therefore they forego a fantastic opportunity to learn. By owning your mistakes, others can potentially avoid the same pitfalls.



Insecure leaders don't talk openly about their mistakes, what they have learned and crucially, what they now do differently. Often they have low self-awareness. They believe their approach is what drives high performance from those around them. Whereas their success often will be despite their involvement. This type of person isn't happy asking questions such as:


  • How much did I really contribute to the success?

  • What role did I play?

  • Who else helped

  • What else contributed?


Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, says, "Whisper wins and shout mistakes." When you make a mistake, say it clearly and loudly so that everyone can learn and profit from your errors. The opposite of humility is pride or arrogance. The common negative impacts of not being humble and showing humility are often:


  • A diminished capacity to learn,

  • A refusal to be accountable for mistakes,

  • Resistance to change,

  • An inability to recognise one's limitations.


These are all reasons why it is crucial in our workplaces to be encouraged to talk about the mistakes we make and build a constructive and timely feedback culture.


Why it can be so difficult


It is counter-cultural.

We live in a world of social media and the cult of me.


Humility does not sell.



Level 5 Leadership - the potential of humility


In "Good to Great, " Jim Collins wrote about level 5 leaders.


"Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Instead, they are incredibly ambitious - but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.
A key trait of level 5 leaders is that their ambition is first and foremost for the company and concern for its success rather than their own riches and personal renown. Level 5 leaders want to see the company even more successful in the next generation, comfortable with the idea that most people won't even know that the roots of that success trace back to their efforts. In contrast, the other leaders are concerned more with their own reputation."

HUMILITY + WILL = LEVEL 5 leadership


Good to Great - Level 5 Hierarchy

"A leader is best when people barely know they exist, not so good when people obey and acclaim them, worst when they despise them.

Fail to honour others and they will fail to honour you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when their work is done, their aims fulfilled, they will all say: 'we did this ourselves.'"

- Lao-tse, Chinese philosopher ~600BC



How to be a more humble leader and embrace the power of humility as part of your leadership style:


  1. Ask questions, which will lead to enhanced self-awareness:

  2. How much did I really contribute to the success?

  3. What role did I play?

  4. Who else helped

  5. What else contributed?

  6. Own up to your mistakes, and share what you have learned.

  7. Ask those around you for feedback:

  8. What should you start to do?

  9. What should you stop doing?

  10. What should you continue to do?

  11. Be fans of your teams, and compliment them in front of others.


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