Why Humility Matters in Leadership

When we first developed our circumplex leadership model, we got a lot of questions about the Humble Dimension. Is humility really one of the most important characteristics of a leader? Aren’t all great leaders bold and charismatic? Who says humility matters? Not only does our quantitative and qualitative research show that people absolutely value humility in their leaders, but many top leadership experts have made similar claims.

Top Leadership Experts on Humility

 In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes, “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. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”

In The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write, “Leaders are simply great learners. They have, to begin with, a great sense of humility about their own sense of skills and abilities, and many leaders, despite what may objectively be ‘extraordinary’ achievements are loath to attribute them to some extraordinary competency on their part.”

In Execution, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan write, “The more you contain your ego, the more realistic you are about your problems. You learn how to listen and admit that you don’t know all the answers. You exhibit the attitude that you can learn from anyone at any time. Your pride doesn’t get in the way of gathering the information you need to achieve the best results. It doesn’t keep you from sharing the credit that needs to be shared.”

In The Handbook for Leaders, Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman discuss humility in the context of character and leadership. They write, “Be willing to laugh at yourself. Don’t flaunt your authority. Humility will make you approachable. It opens the door to building relationships.”


What Does Humility Look Like?

Humble leaders maintain a modest, composed demeanor and can be relied upon to make decisions fairly. Specifically, leaders who are high on the Humble Dimension are good at:

  • Maintaining Composure
  • Showing Modesty, and
  • Being Fair-Minded

In The 8 Dimensions of Leadership, we provide three lessons that the rest of us can learn from Humble leaders. Lesson One: People need leaders to stay calm under fire. Lesson Two: You need other people more than you think. Lesson Three: Other people have needs that differ from your own.

For me, the most challenging of these three lessons is the third one. It’s so easy to get caught up in my own way of thinking and behaving. I tend to be a fairly autonomous person, and a downside of that characteristic is that I can fail to notice whether other people’s needs are being met.

What happens when other people’s needs aren’t met? Oh, very unpleasant things! Resentment, burnout, and disinterest, to name a few. When these come into play, it doesn’t matter how driven, charismatic, or innovative you are as a leader—you won’t get very far without the support of people who are committed to your vision!


  • How about you? What stands in the way of you being as Humble as you’d like to be?
  • Have you ever worked with a truly Humble leader? What did you most admire about him or her?
  • How can we help not-so-Humble leaders to see the light when it comes to this important leadership dimension?

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