The Primary Trait Of Leaders That Scale


When you think of a great leader, what comes to mind? 


At first, you may imagine people who are great speakers, charismatic and above all, supremely confident. 


Depending on your background and upbringing, you may say people along the lines of Bill Gates, Gandhi, Jeff Bezos, Martin Luther King, or George Washington. You may also have a list of heroes or people you look up to within your industry (whatever that may be). But my own experience, and growing research, has found to be a critical attribute for great leadership is humility


If you’re having trouble reconciling two seemingly opposing characteristics like humility and confidence, you’re not alone. Research from organizational psychologist Dr. Bradley Owens introduced the world to “humble narcissism”.  According to Owens “humble narcissists tend to have grand visions but are also open to learning from others and accepting their own limits.”

It turns out the balance, or tension, between narcissism and humility is more like a volume dial and not like a on/off switch. Often, initial success in an startup endeavor is more likely with someone who possesses those narcistic characteristics that exude  confidence. However, that leader may experience failure, or inability to scale an organization due to their own limitations. At this point some leaders have a born again experience if you will. They come to the dramatic realization that they have limits and the contributions of others is valued.

Consider Steve Jobs. He was well-known for being a narcissist, and it wasn’t until after he learned to curve this toxic trait that he finally became a better leader. 


I recently had the opportunity to see Jocko Willink speak at an event. If you don’t know him, he’s one of the most decorated U.S. Navy SEALs with an extremely popular podcast, and he authored a book called Extreme Ownership. In his book, the biggest takeaway is that the greatest leaders are humble because they engage their teams to think for themselves and provide input. The U.S. Army has come to a similiar realization that humility is an essential trait of a successful leader, resulting in a recent modification to their leadership doctrine: “A leader with the right level of humility is a willing learner, maintains accurate self-awareness, and seeks out others’ input and feedback,” according to Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-22.


As a leader, you have to take extreme ownership. This means understanding and being honest about your role in both successes and failures. As Jocko likes to say “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”


So if you’re aim is to build a high-performance team, considering reflecting first on your own role in the team’s capabilities. If your team is facing difficulty overcoming challenges resist the urge to question their commitment, persistence, or skills. Ask yourself if you’ve made your expectations clear. Have you provided your team with the context and tools they need to be successful? What else could you do as a leader to prepare and equip your team for success? Are there any contingencies that you should have aniticipated?


  I reiterate – how do you build a high-performance team?

1.     Clearly communicate the objectives, explaining the “why” of the mission

2.     Request input from the team to encourage ownership in the plan

3.     Keep it simple

4.     Delegate decision making and authority


There are times when a leader needs to act decisively, particularly in a crisis. However, it’s important to turn back the dial to humility to build trust with your team. Being vulnerable is another way for a leader to gain trust. Organizations succeed when leaders learn how to find the right balance and the focus shifts to making others successful rather than themselves.


So it’s up to you to find a way to humble up—because if you don’t, it’s your teams, your companies and your revenue that’ll suffer in the end.