What does it mean when you say someone is a “Humble Leader”?


Sometimes it is easier to define when you give a description of what it is not. Here is a short story from a client in the medical field.


She is a county employee working for a government agency of approximately 200 people, 50 in the headquarters building, and the rest working as disbursed teams of 2-5 professionals. The teams provide health services on-site to their clientele. When COVID restrictions went into a place she continued to work at her site on the front lines.


This is her assessment of the leadership she worked under.


With a very short timeline, limited guidance, and equipment the disbursed teams were tasked to establish protocols at their sites. Requests to the leadership for additional guidance and clarification seemed to go into a black hole. The teams were told, “we are working on the policies.”


All-hands meetings scheduled to provide clarification were few and far between. When the virtual meetings were held, the focus was top-down direction and flow of information such as: “Do this by this time.” The exchange of ideas, sharing, and fielding questions from the professionals in the field rarely took place. Most supervisors attended the virtual meetings from home while the teams were in the field at their site. Top leaders did not always make the meetings. Every meeting was started with effusive praise and expressions of appreciation for all the hard work being done in the field. The actions did not match the rhetoric.


Visits to the sites were a rarity. In a one-year period, one supervisor visited twice. Both times to fulfill a required assessment visit.


In her words, “I never felt so abandoned in my professional life. It seemed as if the leadership did not have the answers and were afraid to admit it. They refused to ask us in the field for input, advice, or what we needed. It looked like they were hiding. In spite of the lack of leadership, we figured it out and got the job done.”


This feels like typical top-down, command and control leadership, where the leaders have all the answers and provide the direction to execute the mission.


How should humble leadership look and feel?


Humble leadership should have a feeling of respect for all, regardless of where they are in the organization. The leaders build relationships, admit what they do not know, accept feedback, and seek input from others, to accomplish the mission.


Jim Collins author Good to Great coined the concept of a Level 5 Leader. “An individual who blends extreme personal humility with the intense professional will.” This is a trait that his research revealed existed at every one of the companies that went from “Good to Great”.  Here is one other point of emphasis; “… they (level 5 leaders) are incredibly ambitious- but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”


The Impact of Humble Leadership

Let’s take the vignette above, make some assumptions about how humble leadership might have impacted this situation.


Relationships and the good of the entire organization would have been at the forefront of every decision. The leaders would have accepted their limitations, and opened lines of communication. Articulated they were in uncharted territory with the pandemic, which required flexibility, patience, input from all sectors.


Possible results:

  • Increased respect between the professionals in the field and the headquarters.
  • A steep learning curve for the entire organization
  • Continuous development of policies and processes
  • Understanding of the challenges each level was experiencing
  • A feeling of belonging to the team and being part of the solution


What does your personal leadership style and the leadership of your organization feel like?


Here are some self-evaluation questions to consider:

  • Are the ambitions of the leaders focused on the organization or themselves?
  • What does respect for individuals look like throughout the organization?
  • Do leaders look for feedback?
  • Do leaders develop relationships?
  • Do leaders admit their shortcomings?


Humble leadership has the ability to build cohesive and synergistic teams. The leaders show the vulnerability of needing all the members to be involved in building solutions.