Why Successful Leaders Need to Learn Humility

UPDATED: December 22, 2016
PUBLISHED: December 16, 2016

The untold truth of leadership is that leaders don’t progress from good to great; they go from decidedly bad to pretty good. At some point, every leader is confronted with the reality that his or her leadership is seriously and substantially flawed. It is at this precise moment that a leader is faced with a choice to either learn and grow or remain blindly loyal to ignorance.

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Every good leader will eventually get a psychological kick in the ass. It is a critical and inevitable part of the leadership experience. Choosing to learn from the experience requires you to reflect on the leader you are deciding on the leader you want to be.

How leaders deal or fail to deal with these moments will make all the difference toward their future effectiveness, impact and well-being. As I explain in my new book, A Leadership Kick in the Ass, a good old-fashioned kick to the rear can be the turning point in one’s career—the moment when a leader assesses her strengths, clarifies her values, and develops a leadership voice and style that are authentic and true.

For more than two decades, I’ve worked with emerging and experienced leaders. I don’t consider myself to be a leadership expert; I am a leadership plumber. I show up to my client’s job site, roll up my sleeves and help them remove any hairballs that are clogging up their system. The work isn’t always pretty. Here are just a few of the painful (and self-induced) butt kicks I’ve seen leaders endure:

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Over the course of three months, a regional vice president has two out of six direct reports quit. Human resources informs him that during exit interviews, each person cited being micromanaged as their main reason for quitting. Ouch!

A department director becomes deeply frustrated that she hasn’t made it into the leadership ranks, where she believes she belongs. The CEO finally explains that the other leaders see her as uncooperative and contentious, and they just don’t like working with her. Ouch!

A project manager has an epiphany that work has become an unhealthy obsession after leading a conference call with her team… two hours after delivering a baby. Ouch!

Over the course of a decade, a senior leader champions the career of a trusted direct report whom he views as his most likely successor. The leader, who prides himself on being a good judge of character, is shocked to discover that his direct report has been running a side business with his executive assistant… with whom he is having an affair. Ouch!

The Kick You Need

Heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

A swift kick in the ass is painful. These stark and startling moments can rattle your confidence to the core, often provoking serious thoughts about joining the non-leader ranks or quitting altogether. But these moments can also inspire what I call transformative humiliation, where pain and embarrassment become the impetus for positive changes that cause a leader to become more grounded, authentic and ultimately effective. It is precisely when you get humbled that you become humble. And humility is crucial to effective leadership.

Related: 6 Attributes of Healthy Humility


It is precisely when you get humbled that you become humble.


Much of my work involves designing and developing comprehensive leadership development programs. Many of the programs include a 360-degree feedback process whereby anonymous feedback is gathered about a leader by his or her boss, peers and direct reports. The leader can use the feedback to make improvements. Sometimes the feedback can sting. One leader’s feedback was particularly scathing. Words such as hot-tempered, explosive, unapproachable, aggressive, edgy and impersonal emerged in the report.

At first he was defensive, but eventually embarrassment set in, and he asked, “How do my results compare to my peers?”

“Not too well,” I confessed.

“So what do I need to do?” he said starkly.

“Get to work,” I replied.

For the next six months, he and I spent 90 minutes every other Tuesday focused on improving his leadership. He’d use his own work situations as a petri dish to experiment with different approaches. He’d have small homework assignments, such as thinking about leaders who had left a positive or negative impression on him, reading leadership articles and clarifying the kind of leader he would be proud to be. He also kept a leadership journal, reflecting on such questions as, “Why, exactly, do you want to lead others?” “What, exactly, qualifies you to lead others?” and “In what ways, exactly, would you like to make a positive difference in the lives of those whom you lead?” The key was for him to be as specific as possible.

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During our coaching sessions, it became clear that lack of self-care was also an issue. Beyond work, he didn’t have a life. All he did was work. He didn’t make time to work out, he had no social life, and he was full of anxiety. It was easy to see why people didn’t like working for him—he was a tightly coiled ball of stress, on the verge of springing loose at any moment. So we made caring for himself (self-leadership) a top priority, including joining a gym and setting aside an hour of uninterrupted “me time” at least twice a week.

Although he made real improvements during our coaching time, I didn’t learn how fully he had grown until about five years later when two of his direct reports were accepted to the same program he had been in. Both of them talked about what a great mentor he had become for them, how he was a positive influence on their careers and how they hoped to lead like him someday. Few things are as gratifying to hear as how a leader with whom you’ve worked has now become a positive influence on a new generation of leaders. Leadership is really working when leaders create new leaders.

Learning From Hardship

Pain, if you let it be, is a great teacher. It’s after you fall off a bike and scrape your knees that you start pedaling harder and faster. If you study the biographies of great leaders you admire, they nearly always hinge on a humiliating and ego-bruising failure that ultimately made the leader stronger, more conscious and more attuned to the needs of others. After a gigantic and very public psychological ass kicking, involving getting sacked from the company he founded, Steve Jobs said, “Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”

The next time you experience a career setback or embarrassing mistake, or humiliating failure, take solace in knowing that it can help you become a better leader… as long as you’re humble enough to learn from the experience.

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Bill Treasurer is chief encouragement officer of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company. For over two decades, Bill has worked with thousands of leaders across the globe, strengthening their leadership influence. His newest book, A Leadership Kick in the Ass, provides practical tips for building confidence and humility. His clients include NASA, Saks Fifth Avenue, UBS Bank, Walsh Construction, Lenovo, Hugo Boss, Children’s Miracle Network and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Learn more at www.BillTreasurer.com and www.CourageBuilding.com.