The X-Factor of Great Leadership: Humility

A saying from Nelson Mandela


A newly published Catalyst study titled “Inclusive Leadership: The Views From Six Countries” shows that the best leaders are human leaders. Humility is one of four critical leadership factors for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included.

Catalyst surveyed a total of 1,512 employees, approximately 250 from each of six different countries—Australia, China (Shanghai), Germany, India, Mexico, and the United States.

In all six countries, the more included employees felt, the more innovative they reported being in their jobs, as well as being more engaged in team citizenship behaviours —going above and beyond the “call of duty” to help other team members and meet workgroup objectives.

In China and Mexico, the link between inclusion and employee innovation was strongest. Chinese and Mexican employees’ perceptions of inclusion accounted for 78% and 51% of innovation, respectively.

The survey also examined what leaders can do to help employees feel included. In Australia, China, Germany, Mexico, and the United States, four leadership behaviours predicted feelings of uniqueness and belongingness—the two key ingredients for inclusion. These were:

  • Humility—Admitting mistakes. Learning from criticism and different points of view. Acknowledging and seeking contributions of others to overcome one’s limitations.

  • Empowerment—Enabling direct reports to develop and excel.

  • Courage—Putting personal interests aside to achieve what needs to be done. Acting on convictions and principles even when it requires personal risk-taking.

  • Accountability—Demonstrating confidence in direct reports by holding them responsible for performance they can control.

Based on my own experiences, I would say humility is the most critical leadership factor in both the Western and Eastern worlds. While working in Asia and London over the past decade, I have met a few great leaders who are Chinese, Singaporean, New Zealander and British by nationality, and I must say they all routinely demonstrate and cultivate humility.

They are usually modest but are not submissive or shy. They are quietly confident and inspire others to take responsibility and measured risks that align with business goals. They are secure enough to recognise their failures and admit that they do not have all the answers. In admitting their own weaknesses, they find authenticity and opportunity. They open up new avenues for the organisation and for their employees.  

If interested, take a look at Top 10 List: The Greatest Living Business Leaders Today gathered by a Forbes contributor back in 2012. Leaders such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Anne Mulcahy of Xerox and Larry Page of Google all practise humility in some way which ultimately led to innovation and long-term success in their own industry.  

In fact, the importance of humility in leadership is not a new idea. Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching in c.550 BC said the following:

The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects.
Next comes the ruler they love and praise;
Next comes one they fear;
Next comes one with whom they take liberties.
When there is not enough faith, there is lack of good faith.
Hesitant he does not utter words lightly.
When his task is accomplished and his work done
The people all say, ‘It happened to us naturally’.


What makes a good leader in your opinion?