What Makes a Great Leader? The Importance of Humility

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Steve Lobley

I remember always being curious why business leaders and their businesses didn’t grow and develop as effectively as they could – and in line with their stated ambitions. It was a great puzzle – despite knowing exactly what to do, nine times out of ten they couldn’t make the changes needed or make the right decisions to truly achieve the step changes required. It led me to the mantra from the Chinese Proverb ‘it’s not the knowing that’s difficult, it’s the doing’ – because THAT is really what it’s all about after all…

And as a result I reshaped my career from business adviser and mentor to launch myself fully into the world of coaching. My 30+ years in business from a shift manager in a textile mill to MD of a £15M business in the corporate world allowed me a unique perspective on the challenges people were facing, and with loads of experience on how to address them. 

I've always been a little obsessed with Leadership. If you've been there and had to lead people it can become an obsession

working out that magic formula that will guarantee results (to get it done), and improve your ability to lead those people effectively time after time.

The first challenge is defining it – my own personal favourite is:

‘The ability to inspire followship’

I feel that succinctly says it all…

What others say about the characteristics of a great leader

One that has been well put, from a favourite book of mine called Good To Great by Jim Collins is the concept of a Level 5 Leader. Here he looks at what makes a great leader and suggests there are two characteristics that define those leaders who make it to the top of their companies. Those who lead their companies to success – humility and fierce resolve.

Level 4 – Effective Leader – ‘Catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision; stimulates the group to high performance standards’.

But to reach Level 5 – (Chief) Executive – ‘Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will’.

‘Enduring greatness’ sounds pretty good, huh? But what is humility when it comes to leadership?

The importance of humility in leadership

Dr. Robert Hogan, founder and president of Hogan Assessments, understands humility to be the psychological opposite of narcissism. He says:

“Substantial research shows that humility predicts effective leadership. Humility is associated with minimizing status differences, listening to subordinates, soliciting input, admitting mistakes and being willing to change course when a plan seems not to work.”

So, a question for you – when did you last show humility as a leader? And do you agree that this is one of the characteristics that makes a great leader?

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