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Humility: a Vital Leadership Trait

We caught up with Rachel Botsman, leading expert on trust in the modern world, ahead of her Masterclass session. Rachel gives us her insights into humility, one of the most vital traits for any leader

“Humility is by definition a starting point—and it sends you off on a journey from there. The arrogance of certainty is both a starting point and an ending point—no journeys needed” – Tim Urban.

Having the humility to admit you were wrong is often used as fuel by critics against leaders. But humility isn’t about having a low opinion of yourself, nor does it mean a leader can’t be confident or ambitious. Humility should not be mistaken for a lack of confidence or credibility.

Some of the world’s most successful leaders – from entrepreneurs to sports stars to authors – are incredibly humble. They believe they can do extraordinary things, and their ideas are big and bold, but they are continually aware of the pitfalls of overconfidence – and how it can leave them blind to what they don’t know.

In fact, humility is a confident relationship with what we don’t know.

Leaders need humility to expose the flaws and blind spots in their knowledge. Having the strength to admit you are wrong gives rise to:

– Curiosity: A genuine interest in new ideas and willingness to hear feedback

– Open-Mindedness: Listening to other people’s ideas and searching for other points of view.

– Vulnerability: Being willing to ask for help when we need it.

– Respect: Treating other people, no matter who they are, with attention, and appreciation.

To reaffirm, humility is a journey, whereas arrogance is an endpoint.

For leaders that struggle with humility, it can be helpful to see it as a force against complacency. One which enables progress and growth and stops both leaders and organisations from standing still and remaining static.

In a world of deep divisions, we need more humility. A humbler society gives rise to sincerity, fairness, truthfulness, and modesty. Practicing humility can be challenging but practicing self-awareness to know what you know and don’t know is a skill all leaders can develop.

Humility is something all leaders can get better at – not just acknowledging and learning from mistakes but being open to understanding where we might be wrong. It’s rocket fuel for trust.

IMI members can sign up now for our virtual Masterclass with Rachel Botsman: Rethinking Trust and Humility, taking place on 24th November. You can subscribe to Rachel’s newsletter here.


The IMI Take

Our research shows that leaders scoring high in humility listen more effectively, inspire great teamwork and have a stronger focus on organisational goals. Humble leaders give their organisation a competitive advantage: higher performing teams, increased collaboration, and greater flexibility and agility in developing and executing on strategy.

Traits associated with humility, such as soliciting feedback and focusing on employee needs, have been found to generate higher levels of engagement and job performance. Leaders scoring high in humility encourage people to speak up, respect differences of opinion and champion the best ideas – all of which leads to increased psychological safety, a vital component within high performing teams.

To read more around the importance of psychological safety, see our article with Grainne Millar, on psychological safety as a catalyst for innovation.