The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.”

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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.

The #1 Trait Every Great Leader Must Possess

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!

  • The best part about this post is that these characteristics are consistently visible across the entire LeadPages team. It’s a privilege to work with them. Thanks for writing this, Tracy!

    • Tracy Simmons

      Thanks, Will…so glad you’re on our team!

  • Great post Tracy and so cool to see you posting on here. I have a lot to learn on this too and master – being a leader takes great responsibility as you’ve pointed out above. The only one I don’t fully agree with is being misunderstood – while I don’t think you have to disclose everything the specific examples you gave there are pretty dire and if that happened I’d prefer to give a short and sweet answer to quell rumors as I hate people talking crap behind your back rather than letting them know an abridged version of the truth.

    • Tracy Simmons

      Natalie, so great to hear from you! The “Be Misunderstood” one is tough, I agree. Unfortunately, there are times when, as a leader, you can’t reveal your “side” of the story, not even in a short comment. It’s not a fun position to be in, but one that occurs to all leaders at some point…especially as the business grows.

  • Neesha Mirchandani

    wow, amazing post! I’m going to share with 100 kids in foster care I will be meeting soon and do a brainstorming session around this. Way cool, Tracy.

    • Tracy Simmons

      Thanks so much, Neesha. I have a real heart for kids in foster care, so reading your comment made my day!

  • Pamela Bell

    Thanks for covering humility on your blog probably the best article on this topic I’ve ever seen. Including myself, I know so many people that could benefit from your article about humility, from CEOs, employees, and entrepreneurs. Like Neesha, I also serve children in foster care, and this information would be wonderful for them as well.

    • Tracy Simmons

      Thanks, Pamela, I so appreciate those high words of praise. Good for you in serving children in foster care!


    touching thoughts, but wish they learn and applying, because arrogance blocks positive thoughts….wish better employment atmosphere and harmony instead of sheep shepherd , cows for boys. we are human thinkers please RESPECT

  • Wow, thanks for posting. “Be Misunderstood” stands out for me. Especially when trying to develop a positive and collaborative workplace, it can sometimes be difficult (and all the more disruptive) to keep decisions or actions private. It takes finesse and patience to withhold information that you know may sometimes lead to misunderstanding or rumor.

    • Tracy Simmons

      Jason, that’s my toughest one, too! When you desire to be open and collaborate with your team but then personnel situations arise that you can’t talk about…hard stuff! Being silent often breeds mistrust, but there are times when you just can’t speak about a situation. Never an easy thing!

      • No, it’s definitely not. I think Information management is a very important & often seldom discussed responsibility for leaders in growing companies. Thanks for addressing it here.

  • Col Dupont

    My magnificence is matched only by my incredible degree of humility, Gandhi would have killed for my humility. Ha!

    • Tracy Simmons

      Made me smile with that one, Col!

  • sariahmarketing

    This is probably the best post I have ever read. It didn’t teach me anything about marketing, SEO, lead generation or PPC, but I can use this information to build an empire. Thanks for sharing!

    • Tracy Simmons

      Thanks so much! I agree: you can build an empire following these principles!

  • Rosie

    Thankyou for such a brilliant and clear article; and the pdf. It’s going up on my office wall today.

    • Tracy Simmons

      Rosie, love the idea of posting these items where you can see them on a daily basis – great idea!

  • dj

    Really very good – but only one thing missing – taking the bullet. In the Nicolas Cage National Treasure movie, Harvey Keitel is an FBI Special Agent responsible for bringing to justice those who are breaking those laws. He gets the line, frequently, that “Someone’s got to go to prison.” Sometimes when the goals are not met – a true leader takes the bullet.

    • Tracy Simmons

      I agree! A good leader absolutely will “take the bullet” when goals are not met. I think that’s covered in #5: Take Responsibility.

  • Zakaria Desai

    Hmm. Refreshing post, and an excellent yardstick to keep in front of us while doing our day to day work. Thanks

    • Tracy Simmons

      Thanks, Zakaria, I appreciate that!

  • Bianca @ Italian Fix Travel

    I love this Tracy. I want to print it out and read it often. And I agree with sariahmarketing.

    • Tracy Simmons

      Bianca, so glad you liked the post!

  • Bianca @ Italian Fix Travel

    Oh so sorry for uploading that photo. That was a mistake. Please remove. 😉

    • Bianca, would you please post the same comment again, without the picture? Thanks so much. 🙂

  • Tiko Blane

    Great Post!

    • Tracy Simmons

      Thanks Tiko!

  • gregpipkin

    Tracy, this is one of the best articles on humility in leadership that I have read. Focusing on any one or two of these characteristics alone will make a huge difference in one’s life. Thanks for sharing. Great stuff!

    • Tracy Simmons

      Greg, thanks, that means a lot. I often focus on just one trait each week. It takes me months to cycle through all of these traits, and then I start all over again! Well worth the focus time, no doubt.

  • Delbert

    Absolutely terrific. I try to be all that you describe but perfection in any part of this is difficult.

    • Tracy Simmons

      Delbert, thanks! None of us is perfect, that’s for sure! As long as we’re continually moving toward the goal, we have to happy with that :).