3 Habits Of Humble Yet Effective Leaders

Brash and egotistical leadership only takes you so far.

3 Habits Of Humble Yet Effective Leaders
[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

Brash, charismatic leadership no longer goes as far as it used to. For businesses to survive and thrive, they need to be more compassionate–listening better, encouraging debate, working collaboratively, and becoming more transparent–and that all starts at the top.


For leaders, that means putting their team’s and organizations’ needs first. Researchers from the University of Delaware, Texas A&M University, and the University of Cincinnati, who recently studied CEOs’ behavior, concluded that “measured self-interest keeps managers focused on the firm’s goals, and measured altruism helps the firm to build and maintain strong human and social capital.”

For some, this is hardly a new concept. Darwin E. Smith, for instance, spent 20 years turning Kimberly-Clark into a leading consumer paper products company. A shy and reserved man, Smith shunned the spotlight and was well-known for eschewing the corporate swagger of other high-profile CEOs.

Indeed, even President Obama (who has nevertheless been called arrogant by his critics) has spoken about the importance of a more humble leadership approach, telling Fortune in 2008, “I insist on the suppression of ego” when considering collaborators. Whatever your views at the policy level, it’s still true his administration has accomplished a great deal, despite considerable obstacles.

Here are three of the key habits that humble yet effective leaders practice every day.


1. They Ask Questions

Set aside time to find out what’s going on with the people you work with. Put the focus onto them, not you. Most of our working day is centered around ourselves–what we need to accomplish, how productive we’ve been lately. It’s easy to forget to pay attention to others. Ask questions and show real interest in your teams. Be curious about everybody your organisation touches.

For LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, focusing on his people rather than himself is a rule he aspires “to live by more than any other.” As he told the Wisdom 2.0 Summit, “The tendency will be to expect people to do things the way you do them. It’s very natural, [but] it’s not the right way to approach it. You need to take a moment to manage compassionately, put yourself in their shoes, and understand why they’re coming with what they come with.”

2. They Listen Thoughtfully

Obviously, meaningful conversation rests on strong listening skills. But it takes a little practice to get it right. Leaders are often expected to offer their views, so the reverse habit–hearing those of others–doesn’t always come naturally.

Let people talk without interjecting or commenting. Look them in the eye and focus on what they’re actually saying, without judgment. And remember that sometimes the most important communication isn’t about what’s explicitly said, but the connection between you and how that develops as the conversation processes. Dr. Ralph Nichols dedicated years of pioneering research to the art of listening. He believed that the need to understand and be understood was an elemental human need, and the only way to meet it is by listening.

3. They’re Appreciative—And Show It

Employees bring so much more than their professional knowledge to work. They bring their heart and soul and a wide range of personal experiences–and leaders need to value that. Every time you work with somebody new, take a moment to spot one thing that you admire about them.

Too often, business communication focuses on data and results. The most effective, humble leaders look beyond that. By reinforcing what people are doing well or what makes them special, we build on their confidence and push them to do even better.


Dave Goldberg, the late CEO of SurveyMonkey, exuded the characteristics of a compassionate leader. Not only was he a great entrepreneur known for his game-changing business models, he was widely renowned for the appreciation and esteem he showed for his team. As author Adam Grant recounts, “It was clear that Dave made a concerted effort to recruit people who cared about others, who loved to learn and have fun. But his team stressed something far more meaningful: Dave built that culture by example. His helpfulness, inquisitiveness, and joy were contagious. His employees wanted to be like him.“

Humble leaders who set powerful examples deserve emulating in more corners of the business world.

Chris Baréz-Brown, author, speaker, and founder of Upping Your Elvis, specializes in creative leadership. Connect with him on Twitter @uppingyourelvis.