The No. 1 Leadership Trait You Really Need to be Successful

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Most workplace disputes and disasters can be traced back to one thing: a lack of leadership.

So, what’s the absolute No. 1 most important leadership trait in the history of the universe? Last week, we posed the following question for your consideration:

What’s the absolute No. 1 leadership trait in the history of the universe?

After more than 300 votes, here’s how you responded:

  • Communication skills (78 percent);
  • Humility (15 percent);
  • Charisma (6 percent);
  • Intelligence (2 percent);
  • Height (1 percent);
  • Smooth Dance Moves (1 percent).

Believe it or not, it’s all about humility

While as a ridiculously over-tall person I believe that “Height” is a much-overlooked and critically important leadership trait, the correct answer is … humility.

That may seem 100 percent counter-intuitive when you picture today’s stereotypical CEO. But according to various workplace gurus (including Jim Collins and the research team behind the landmark business book Good to Great, as well as recent studies published in the Academy of Management Journal and Organization Science), it’s true.

Leaders who are truly (1) servant-hearted; (2) able to put others and the organization first ; and, (3) willing to listen with humility to other points of view are the ones that people will follow.

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Thus, if you want to win in today’s hyper-competitive world of work you should (1) hire, promote and retain people who fit that description; and, (2) strive to fit it yourself.

So, I humbly suggest that you ask yourself this question today: Do others see humility in me?

If you want to be a truly great leader, the answer should be a resounding “YES.”

This was originally published on Manpower Group’s Employment Blawg.

Mark Toth has served as Manpower Group North America's Chief Legal Officer since 2000. He also serves on the company’s Global Leadership Team, Global Legal Lead Team and North American Lead Team. Mark is recognized as an expert on legal issues affecting the U.S. workplace and is frequently quoted in media from The Wall Street Journal to 60 Minutes. He is also a past Chair of the American Staffing Association and is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources. Contact him at


36 Comments on “The No. 1 Leadership Trait You Really Need to be Successful

  1. I was buying this article until you threw “Smooth Dance Moves” in there. The validity of this article for me is now nihl. You ruined a wonderful focus and topic.

  2. Don’t agree totally with this-humility may be the trait that a lot of people in leadership roles lack or appear to lack, probably because of stereotypical recruitment, but an over-focus on humility and listening and considering can lead to a leader being the nice guy/gal that isn’t toppled but neither is effective or decisive.

    To me the best skill a leader has is cutting through and doing. We have to be careful of ‘leaders’ who in fact are just’talkers’ who agree to pay themselves a lot.

    It is the implementation layer that makes the difference between a nice jovial chat and a new reality. Sometimes that requires more than nodding diplomacy.

    As for the other comment, one thing that leaders should never be sucked into is judgemental behaviour and ignoring a whole argument because of someones verbal ticks, humour or tie.

    1. On the contrary, I totally agree with this article. Humility is the one character trait that will either make or break a leader. The issue is that a lack of humility leads to extreme behavior—stepping on others because my needs and desires are more important or allowing others to get stepped on (or unwillingness to confront injustice) because I don’t feel like putting forth the effort to get involved. This is directly related to one’s use of power as a leader. In the words of David McClelland, a self-focused leader uses “personal power” (power for me) and a humble leader uses “prosocial power” (power for us). Leadership gurus, Bass and Avolio, coined the term “pseudotransformational” to describe these leaders who lack humility. To be honest, I think you could also call them “charismatic leaders” which is often lots of flash but little substance (yes, I am aware of many works touting charismatic leaders as good but I fail to see it as something to which I or others should aspire).

  3. Mark, you can’t read a person’s mind, or know if a person fills out a job app honestly, and in today’s market, most people should be humble. What I like to see is ENERGY!
    And a sincere smile helps. Pajama Lady

  4. Back when I read Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” it made a lot of sense to me. So I added “Humility” to the Attributes that my clients were asked to assess when briefing me before starting to recruit people for their senior management roles. I even extolled the good “Humility” sense that Jim Collins recommended. Nevertheless, in 15 years of recruiting, when push has come to shove the reality is that “Humility” has yet to be included in the Top 15 Attributes for any job.
    It comes back to what Lou Adler promotes. Performance-based Experience Attributes
    pre-dominate the Top 15 Attributes.
    However nothing beats asking the Hiring Manager and the Final Decision Maker to go
    through a quick (15-20 minute) and thorough briefing process to reveal what
    clients want recruiters to find in exemplary candidates for jobs.

  5. If I may, I believe there are many effective leadership skills and styles; however, there are two types of leaderships in my opinion – one comes with an official title and the other is unspoken where people, colleagues, and managers would seek for his/her opinions first before taking their actions. These unspoken leaders are often humble individuals who do not want to be in the official leadership roles, but truly are those who would get things done, and inspired others to follow.

    1. If you want to watch LEADERSHIP STYLES in action, (Official verses natural) take in the movie “Twelve Angry Men”. The old one or remake will do fine…great lessons to be learned. Thanks for all of the thought provoking communication.

  6. Humility is close, but if you are talking history of the universe, the number one trait is LOVE. Love for what you believe in and truly caring for those you are leading. It must be a pure love and not something that we more commonly confuse with lust.

  7. Mark, Thank you for this piece. There is no doubt that humility is central to any leader’s success. As one leader put it to us when talking to us about his personal best leadership experience, “You can’t do it alone.” Exemplary leaders know that making extraordinary things happen is a team effort and that they are there to serve their constituents…not the other way around.

    I also want to add another essential quality to your list. In our leadership research over the last 30 years, Barry Posner and I have asked the question “What do you look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction you would willingly follow?” The number one characteristic EVERY YEAR for 30 years has been “Honest.” This is true not only in the United States, but around the world. Consistently over 85% of respondents tell us that they look for a leader who is honest—has integrity, tells the truth, and is trustworthy. Personal credibility, of which honesty is the #1 component, is the foundation of leadership. If people don’t believe in the messenger, they won’t believe the message.

  8. Communication skills are skills not traits. Humility is an attitude. Attitudes and skills can be acquired or disregarded, but both, ethically expressed, are a function of the same thing….enlightened choices employing the Force, living in Light, denying personal character weaknesses, being focused on the needs of others, denying the Ego. Some people got it; some people clearly don’t. May the Force be with you and I think it’s a trait. No one can be a real leader without it.

  9. What? I think Humility is a great virtue, however you poll reads:

    After more than 300 votes, here’s how you responded:

    Communication skills (78 percent);

    Humility (15 percent);

    Charisma (6 percent);

    Intelligence (2 percent);

    Height (1 percent);

    Smooth Dance Moves (1 percent).

    Isn’t communication higher that humility? I thinks the world of Jim Kouzes.

  10. This is great- humility entails the ability to step aside the ego- these leaders then are the real thing-

  11. A few things…

    I think discussing what’s needed for leadership is kind of like discussing what’s needed for a car to work. There are at least 100 different parts in a car, that, if you removed them, the car would not work. So between these parts, there is no “more important”. Removing any of them causes the entire machine to stop, meaning they are all equal and possess and equal threshold of importance.

    For leadership, you need a lot of things, not just humility. You cant build leadership entirely on just that one part.

    But if we put that aside for a moment and just went ahead anyway with the most important comparison… is it really humility? I think it depends on the what you need leadership FOR. I somehow doubt that Collin Powell became a general based on humility. Likewise, Sun Tzu – author of The Art of War, probably would not have chosen humility either. I think President’s get elected based on their charismatic ability to appeal to the masses, rather than their humility.

    We might think of dozens of other examples where humility takes a backseat in leadership as well.

  12. I am not sure this is true but as a kid, I learned that in some Native American tribes, leadership roles were often given to the individuals who didn’t really want them. These humbler people would do it out of a sense of service to their people. Anyone that was too eager for power were deemed no only more corruptible, but in it for themselves first and foremost. It makes sense in the context of humility being a trait of an effective leader.

  13. I think all is good except the last two. However, if a manager is really good at something and naturally weak at other things, s/he may go further focusing on their strength and only trying to fix their shortcomings when they have time. For example, imagine Steve Jobs spent most of his time trying to communicate and be humble.

  14. As suggested by the poll that you seem to ignore, communication resoundingly trumps humility. You can be the humblest leader on earth but if you have no communication skills you’re sunk. Without communication no one knows what you want or how to achieve the goals you’re setting forth as a leader.
    Without Humility they may not love you but they’ll know what’s expected. Workplace frustration rises mainly from vagueness of expectation, not from leaders that think they’re correct. In certain cases you need your leader to be unwavering in their goal to get things achieved. Anything less and the team will fail.

    Jim Kouze’s comment hit the nail on tandem trait that you’ll also struggle without, which is honesty. If you can’t lead openly and honestly you may actually have your workers resent or even hate you. If you veil your reasons for your goals or tell your workers half-truths to get what you want, then you deserve to have them resent you when the truth comes out.

    1. Good point – sort of. Communication is probably WHY humility and honesty is important. Without humility, communication becomes broadcasting (one-way). And without honesty, it becomes spreading of fertilizer.

      Good communication is about listening. A competent leader can’t steer the ship with confidence without knowing where the rocks and snags are. That means listening to the bilge-rats who know about these things better than anyone.

  15. Mark–great article—In a society that seems to embrace arrogant boastful bosses like Donald Trump–I was nervous when I was given the responsibility of ‘telling people what to do’– I am not a natural leader–and I conveyed that to the people I needed to give direction to. The one thing that the people I work with say about me is that I am ‘just like them’–not a it helps to just be yourself….and a little humility pays off. I am surrounded by the best team of people…the only thing I do boast about are my dance moves….LOL! ~Lin

  16. How do you show humility in an interview without seeming as if you lack confidence and would being humble give you a better chance at getting the job than being confident? That seems to be a fine line. Understanding that humility is an important leadership quality is great for when you are actually in a leadership role but it does you no good if you don’t get the job.

    1. even not in leadership role, we should be humble but not to the point of being passive in everything we know is right and true

  17. Unfortunately, we have abundant evidence that those in “C” level positions are often abrasive and combative. I would suspect the writer can cite a few examples of humble leadership, but my experience does not match that.

  18. I’m understanding more and more each day that in order to lead, you have to follow the needs of others and be flexible to change, when the decisions of leading put business and enterprise in jeopardy.” Economics is a tricky mistress. She will cheat on you and get you divorced from leadership if you fail to notice the changes in her behavior and damage the confidence of those following you, when you’re exposed and fail to be flexible.” {MY QUOTE: Rev. K. Harden Sr.}
    A good leader admits he is wrong and begs for forgiveness. A bad leader blames his failings, on the “cut of the skirt”.{MY QUOTE: Rev. K. Harden Sr.}
    Admit a bad situation and walk away from it and others will follow…

  19. Right, servant leadership is necessary, the exemplary life they portray is very effective in the success of every organization

  20. Perhaps you would define what exactly you mean by “humility” !
    Indeed, it might be of more benefit to readers to define what “humility” is NOT !
    This is a word that, in my experience, has connotations of ‘head down’, ‘ I’m not of much value’ and other such negativity when, in fact, true humility is an acknowledgement of the truth of one’s being.
    Rob Sillery

  21. Why is it important what the number one trait is? Let’s say it’s humility. Great! Now what? Are we all going to take humility lessons to become better leaders? Or maybe we’ll add “humility” as a skill on LinkedIn and expect people to endorse us for it…

    Are HR pros going to change their recruiting practices and ask: “What can you tell me about your humility?” or “How humble do you see yourself in 10 years?”

  22. I can’t decide whether “Height is a much-overlooked and critically important leadership trait” was meant seriously or as a joke. If it was serious please read Malcolm Gladwell: Blink, and reconsider your sizeist belief after reading about “the Warren Harding Error”.

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