The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

Of the hundreds of questions I get asked related to my post on How Leaders Build Dream Teams, the most frequently asked ones are focused on what exactly makes a great leader.

Astute entrepreneurs have caught the vision of building an amazing team, but what they really want to know is what kind of leaders they should hire to work with that team.

While the complete answer to that question is complex and could easily fill an entire book, there is one common trait that every truly great leader must possess:


“Respect and Humility” is one of our 10 core values at LeadPages™. When I’m interviewing a leader to join our team I ask a variety of questions, but the one thing that I’m listening for under the surface of the answers is humility.

Not the sickly sweet distorted version of humility which turns some people into doormats, but the powerful kind of humility that moves mountains while always upholding the dignity of every person involved.

I’ll take a humble, unskilled, inexperienced leader over an arrogant, experienced, highly skilled “leader” any day of the week. If you’ve ever worked with an arrogant leader, you’re likely nodding your head in agreement. Thankfully we don’t have to choose between these two extremes: there are great, humble leaders to be found.

Humility can be tricky to define, so I’ve chosen to portray it by focusing on the manifestations of humility. I’d encourage you to do a check-up on your own humility as you read through this list.

Just one disclaimer before we dive in.

It ain’t me, babe.

Just because I’m writing on this topic and I screen every leader we hire or promote at LeadPages™ for these expressions of humility doesn’t mean I’ve mastered all of them. Like everyone else, I’m a work in progress, continually hitting up against my own weaknesses and flaws, working through them only to find more rising to the surface.

With that disclaimer firmly in place, read on to discover the sweet 16 characteristics of humility.

1. Admit It: You admit your weaknesses, flaws, and the things you don’t do well. You laugh at yourself. You know you have an inner freak and you’ve embraced it. Humility allows you to give an honest assessment of yourself. Arrogance will cause you to mask the things you don’t do well.

2. Be Misunderstood: You are willing to stay silent on issues, even at great personal cost. Whether parting ways with a beloved accountant who embezzled funds or terminating a life-of-the-party team member who backed a co-worker into a corner and threatened to take their life, you won’t be able to speak a word of explanation.

An outcry will occur, complaints will be made, and you will not be able to explain why these people are no longer employed. You may be lied about and portrayed as the villain by the ex-team members, and you cannot offer a word in your defense.

3. Ask for Help: You know when you need to ask for help from others and you’re not afraid do so. You’re likely to hit your limit at some point, whether you’re running out of time, coming up against a lack of knowledge or missing skillset, or just feeling overwhelmed, and you’re not afraid to ask for help.

4. Better Than You: You do not feel threatened by (and are willing to hire) people who are smarter than you, have greater skills and experience than you…and you’re happy to pay them more than you make. You know that hiring people who are better than you doesn’t diminish you or your role.

The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t have to play the violin, flute, and clarinet perfectly. She just needs to know how to get all members of the orchestra to work together to create a great sound. This expression of humility is often difficult for new leaders to embrace.

5. Take Responsibility: When there’s a failure or a mistake made by someone on your team, you acknowledge that part of the failure belongs to you. You take responsibility for your team’s mistakes.

6. You Can Handle the Truth: You welcome constructive criticism. You ask for feedback — and openly listen to it and receive it — even when it’s hard to hear. You look for the truth in what is being said rather than thinking about how to defend yourself. You are teachable. You place high value on pushback and welcome the hard (sometimes painful) truths.

7. Apologize: You’re willing to admit when you’ve blown it and to apologize for your mistakes. The greater your level of responsibility, the deeper your apologies will go. The apologies you make are clear, specific, and contain the words, “I’m sorry.”

8. Let It Go: You don’t always need to be right. You know it’s better to let some things go rather than trying to prove your point. You understand that there are times when it’s better to drop an issue rather than to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on a topic that really doesn’t need to be seen through to the (often bitter) end.

9. Have Hard Conversations: You’re willing to have hard conversations. This means you’re okay with not being everyone’s best buddy. During hard conversations you always strive to uphold the person’s dignity and to speak with kindness, while not shrinking back from the truth. The willingness to have hard conversations doesn’t mean they’re easy. It’s okay if you need to have a good cry afterward, but you’re fully committed to having all necessary hard conversations.

10. Take Risks: You’re willing to take risks and fail. You’re willing to be wrong. It takes humility to be open to suffer public failure, and you know you’ll have to occasionally go out on a limb.

11. Be Unoffendable: You’re not looking for ways to be personally offended. You believe the best of others and let much that could offend you roll off your back. You assume the best of others’ actions and intents. You’re not touchy and it’s hard to push your buttons.

12. Forgive Others: You forgive others when they make mistakes. You speak with them about their errors and then let them start all over with a clean slate. You don’t repeatedly bring up past failures, knowing that doing so can lead the team member to feeling hopelessness and delivering poor performance.

13. Give Credit: You look for ways to give away credit for work done, shouting it out to anyone who will listen, rather than to soak it all up for yourself. Arrogant leaders want to steal the credit for work they didn’t do. Humble leaders prefer to give credit to their team.

14. Lavish Praise: You easily heap lavish praise on those who are doing a great job. You are not stingy with honest praise of a job well done. Pride-filled leaders do not want to praise others because they want the spotlight on themselves. Humble leaders prefer to shine the spotlight on others.

15. Serve: You’re willing to serve and to lead by example. Nothing is beneath you. You’re like Nelson Mandela, who was willing to clean the chamber pot of a fellow inmate even though there were dozens of others he could have asked to take over this task. You will do whatever you can to serve the people you’re leading. You ask them regularly what you can do to better support them.

16. Share the Knowledge: You willingly share your knowledge with others. You have no need to hoard it in order to look smarter or better than others. You want to help others develop and grow as far as possible. You’re not afraid of succession planning.

How’s Your Humility?

That’s the sweet 16 list. How did you fare as you read through the list and did a self-assessment? You likely found a few weak spots that you can now focus on shoring up.

If you found any expressions of humility that are truly difficult for you, look inside to remove the blockers to humility. Dig in deeper to get to the root cause.

If you’d like to keep these 16 characteristics of humility at the forefront of your thinking, click the button below to get a free PDF listing each characteristic you can use for easy reference:

Arrogant leaders may appear supremely confident, but it’s really quite the opposite. Their arrogance and pride are often covering up feelings of inadequacy that are usually due to shame and low self-esteem.

Whenever I’m getting tripped up in one of these expressions of humility the root is usually shame. As soon as I deal with that root I’m then able to easily flow in the proper expression of humility.

Have you ever worked with a truly humble or arrogant leader? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. It would also be great if to hear where you’re doing well with expressions of humility and where you still struggle. Questions and comments are welcome and I’ll respond to every one.

Lead on!

Like what you read? Give Leadpages a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.