top of page

Humility as a Prerequisite for Leadership

In his best selling book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins did exhaustive research to discover key factors in what made an organization great. One of his surprising discoveries was: each great company had at its helm what he describes as a Level Five leader.

What is a Level Five leader? According to Collins research, a Level Five leader is one who has moved beyond traditional definitions of leadership to embody two characteristics that set them apart from all others. These two characteristics are professional will and personal humility. Professional will is to persevere and retain a burning focus on results regardless of the obstacles. Humility is not thinking more highly of yourself than you ought, but instead seeing yourself as you really are.

I remember reading this research and was surprised at the importance of humility in leadership, just as Collins was. Collins discovered the same thing about great leaders: they gave away all the credit when events went well, and they took responsibility for the failures when they did not. In thinking about this I was reminded of a Harry Truman quote, “It is surprising what you can accomplish with a group if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Humility is a misunderstood term in our society today and many people think of it as thinking lowly of self, being a pushover, and groveling below everyone else. This attitude is not genuine humility but, rather a lack of self-esteem that can lead to all kinds of problems: fear of failure, depression, and dependence on the approval of others.

What you think about yourself is more important than what anyone else thinks about you. Real humility is having a right estimate of self. You do not think either more or less of yourself than you should, but instead are self-aware and have the right estimate of who you are. I like the quote by Malcolm Forbes: “Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are.”

Arrogance is the antithesis of humility. Arrogance is thinking more of yourself than you ought and is one of the key ways leaders reduce their influence with others. As Abraham Lincoln said, “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.” I believe there are few things that hurt leaders more than rushing to take credit for everything good, making themselves the center of attention in the process. And, what usually accompanies arrogance is blaming others and making excuses for poor performance of the organization. Arrogant leaders have little influence with their people and in the worst case help foster the attitude that people want to see them fail and even contribute to their failure through sabotage. If you want people to speak well of you, then don’t speak well of yourself.

How can you develop humility as a moral virtue and character trait?

  • Develop habits of daily self-examination

  • Do not speak highly of yourself to others

  • See yourself as you are

  • Always be looking to give credit where credit is due

  • Admit and be quick to take 100% responsibility for failures and mistakes

  • Do not beat yourself up over failures and think less of yourself than you ought

  • Place the goals and objectives of the team or organization above your own agenda

  • Consistently seek and be open to feedback from others on your blind spots

  • Have an accountability partner who will tell you the truth

Great leaders produce committed followers for one major reason: followers believe leaders see their possibilities and long for them to attain those possibilities. To promote the growth and development of those both above them and below them requires the acquisition of true humility.


Leading for Engagement© Virtual Training for Managers and Front-Line Supervisors

Click to learn more.

Sign-up for to receive the Team Trek Journal by email. Once per month we’ll send featured leadership articles to your inbox. Sign me up!

Team Trek is a world-class provider of culture transformation solutions, leadership development, and team building.

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page