Why humility for a leader is important, but not enough

When humility is absent, leaders lose the ability to listen and focus on what is important.

“Egos drive people in every occupation.”[1]  However, when humility is absent in leadership, Jim Collins describes the resulting behaviors as “arrogant neglect” and “hubris born of success.”  When these behaviors exist, the organization has entered the first stage of organizational decline.[2]

In his landmark research comparing ‘good to great’ companies with companies that failed to make the leap from good to great, he presents attributes of leadership that were distinctive in the good to great companies.[3]  One of those attributes he describes as Level 5 Leadership. Collins holds it up against the popular practice of appointing ‘celebrity’ leaders who are quick to point to their messianic endeavors in building successful organizations and turning them around.

What is Level 5 leadership? It is a blend of humility and drive for leaders, and the “incurable need to produce results” if their organizations are to become great and enduring.[4]  What the research supports, according to Collins, is that humility cannot be a substitute for leadership skills and capabilities, and your skills as a leader cannot compensate for the absence of humility.  They need to co-exist and complement one another.

Collins points to numerous examples of how many good companies failed to reach greatness simply because Level 5 leadership did not exist.  In fact, in more than 75 percent of the comparison companies, executives set their successors up to fail.[5]  They wanted to believe that the organization would not have achieved the level of success it did without them at the helm, and neither would it be possible for them to maintain that success into the future without them.  They may have been good leaders, and even some of the best leaders, but they were not Level 5 leaders.  They were NOT great leaders!

In a culture that thrives on competition and the pursuit of achievement and accumulation of wealth and status as symbols of success, it is important to note that none of us are immune from its trappings.  What we need from ourselves and from our leaders is what Collins describes as “compelling modesty” –

In contrast to the very I-centric style of the comparison leaders, we were struck by how the good-to-great leaders didn’t talk about themselves. During interviews with the good-to-great leaders, they’d talk about the company and the contributions of other executives as long as we’d like but would deflect discussion about their own contributions…it wasn’t just false modesty.[6]

This is what most followers find attractive.  Yes, they get excited about great vision, well-executed strategy, being fulfilled at work, and knowing that their contributions are valued. However, what keeps them motivated is seeing grounded and humble leadership who are driven for results and what is best for the organization, not building a monument to themselves so they can be worshiped.

What’s the bottom-line?

Level 5 leadership is a unique blend of humility and drive that gets sustainable results to help an organization become enduring.  Reflect on the following:

  • Are you comfortable talking about the achievements of your team, or feel compelled to talk about your own leadership?
  • Are you focused on surrounding yourself with staff that are less talented and ambitious than you, or committed to getting the right people on the bus, who are better at what they do than you?
  • Humility without the drive for results will end in disappointment; in contrast, the inverse is also true.


[1] David Heenan, Leaving On Top: Graceful Exits For Leaders (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2012), 19.

[2] Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall And Why Some Companies Never Give In (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

[3] Jim Collins, Good to Great – Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).

[4] Ibid. 30.

[5] Ibid. 26.

[6] Ibid. 27.

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