One trait of a great leader: Humility

Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series of leadership-focused columns.

What makes somebody a great leader? This is a bit of a loaded question, as I could ask a room of people from different industries, geographical regions or backgrounds and write their answers until my hand cramps, or the ink runs out of my dry erase marker.

Christy Baker image
Christy Baker

Words that personify traits of a “strong” leader include bold, risk-taking, visionary, tireless or powerful. These leaders will conquer the world, disrupt their industry, and take on the regulators — all while operating off two hours of sleep, an energy drink and a protein bar. 

Great leaders view their teams through a softer, more benevolent lens. Words to describe this leader may be calm, logical, resolute, servantlike, encouraging and genuine. They remain calm, offer steadiness to the organization, and understand the importance of eight solid hours.

I am going to stop for a moment and assume each person reading this article is viewing these descriptions through their own lens and with their own biases in place. We may view the hard-driving leader as unpredictable and egocentric while we may view the benevolent leader as tepid and ineffective. I mean, who gets eight hours of sleep every night? We each have our own perception and opinion of the qualities that define great leaders. 

At Revela, we have identified our top four qualities that not only make someone a great leader, but a great human being. I love suspense so will cover one at a time and keep you coming back for more! Drumroll please … our first quality is …

Humility. Genuine Humility. These leaders put their people first. 

Humble leaders tend to be more self-reflective and recognize their strengths and limitations. They tend to listen more deeply because they care about what their team members have to say. These leaders are more likely to admit when they do not have all the answers and step forward when they have made a mistake. Their willingness to show vulnerability with their team makes them highly relatable and creates a culture within which their team members are willing to speak up and admit their mistakes as well. 

Ezra Taft Benson, Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower, stated, “Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.” Is it important for the leader to prove they are the smartest person in the room or for them to gather input from their team to ensure the best outcomes? Let us imagine a room full of bank executives who, along with their CEO, are working through a complex situation, such as identifying new sources of non-interest income due to the current banking environment. The CEO is sitting back, taking in the ideas, asking clarifying questions, exhibiting the characteristics of a humble leader. Suddenly she states, “I have been thinking about all of these ideas for some time and have been waiting for you all to catch up.” 

Did someone just suck the air out of the room? That one statement twisted a healthy exchange of ideas into the CEO asserting she was the smartest person in the room because she had already thought of those ideas and her team was slow on the uptake. She may very well have been thinking of those ideas, but the idea exchange brought more depth and insight due to the different perspectives in the room. This is a good lesson that we do not say every thought aloud. 

How do you want your followers — those whom you have had the great fortune to lead — to remember you? I will pose this same question after each leadership article and encourage you to take a beat to reflect on your personal leadership legacy.

Christy Baker is a facilitator and coach focusing on organizational health and strategies for Omaha-based Revela. She provides group training and individual coaching and is a former COO for an Iowa-based community banking group. She can be reached at [email protected].