One Trait to Lead Them All
I interviewed a candidate this week who asked me great questions, knowing I would be their manager. One of those questions has been stuck in my head. Though I stand by my response, there are so many other choices that would also have been true.
“What is the most important characteristic of an effective leader?”
While many answers flew through my head, and I nervously considered the flaws in any answer that the candidate might see and use to judge me as their manager, I ultimately answered with “humility.”
I went on a walk after the interview and took a voice note of all of the traits I believe make effective leaders. Not just effective people managers, but truly rounded, EFFECTIVE leaders. The ones that came through as consistent themes were being:
- Transparent — Say what you mean and mean what you say.
But I kept coming back to humility. I chose it because I believe humility is required to truly embody all the other traits that I considered. Now you might think, “well how can you be discerning and humble? Why is humility required to be supportive?”
Let me show you how:
— Before I begin, it feels important to state what I hope is obvious: I am not successful in my pursuit of these traits every day. I do not always lead with humility, I’m not always true to my word, and I am certainly not some kind of mogul leader. My team is so patient with me as I grow in all of these areas, but this is what I strive for. In the words of my favorite band, “my life is a constant work in progress, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” —
Part 1: Trustworthy
Humility in Being Good to Your Word
Why does it matter that much? The concept of giving someone your word as your bond isn’t one that’s very prevalent in our culture anymore. I hate to say it, but I do think it’s a result of so many people making empty promises, or even casual commitments that they don’t intend to follow through on. Your word used to mean something. As a leader, if I’m not true to my word, I won’t retain my team — simply put. Would you work for a manager that doesn’t do what they say they’ll do? I wouldn’t. I need to be able to trust the person making decisions (and oh boy, do I trust my boss). Showing that I consistently do what I say I’m going to do — big or small — is the best way I know to solidify that very crucial part of my relationship with my team.
I give you my word, I’ll make sure you get to the other side.
If someone on the team comes to me in a bind because something went wrong in their work process, it’s more important for them to be able to rely on me to help them through the situation than it is for me to be right about how you told them to handle it. We don’t ever want team members to feel like “I told you so” or “I never would have done this,” even if those are true. I want them to trust that I’ve got their back, because their back is more important than any front I could put on. I need to show humility so that my team knows I’ll prioritize solving the problem over “making sure they learned the lesson.”
That’s not to say that we don’t go back and talk about it. We do — after we’ve solved the problem and they’ve taken a ‘minute’ to recover from it. That part (the order of operations) was hard for me when I first started managing people, and I’ve said some scathing words that I regret to this day when people really just needed help. It was important for me to make sure that people knew what the right thing was so they didn’t make the same mistake in the process of trying to fix the first one. or ever. Yes, I would absolutely support them through it — after they “knew” how they’d messed up and said how they’d avoid doing it again (thanks Evangelical upbringing for that one).
Not only is that approach destructive, hurtful, and often wastes time — it puts MY need for an admission or apology ahead of THEIR need for a solution. No humility in that. It wasn’t until my boss called me out on it and said “you really think they don’t already know they messed up?” that I started thinking about the flaws in that approach. I wouldn’t trust someone to help me if their first reaction would be to beat me over the head with my mistake. No humility — no trust.
Further, even if they’ve done nothing wrong — maybe they want my input on part of their work — they need to be able to trust that I’m going to give them advice and direction that will lead them to success and help them win — not somehow further myself. If my team ever questions my motives — no trust.
Heck, maybe they just need help and I happen to be the person they’re on a call with at the time that it comes up. They need to know that they CAN come to me for help, big or small, because they the individual matter to me, the individual.
It’s not always gonna be me carrying you.
Another way that humility comes to play in trustworthiness is in choosing to give my word that I’ll make sure my team is supported, rather than that I personally will always be that support. Sometimes, absolutely. But if I don’t think they truly need me, and someone else can help, my team needs to be able to trust that the direction I send them, the people I loop in, the resources I share will accomplish their objective. and if they don’t, I’ll keep finding more until they do. It takes humility to say “someone else can help you with this!” — it’s not about me. I don’t need credit, I need you to be supported.
But when it is, I show up.
If my team is counting on me personally for a task, especially if it’s a part of my role and responsibilities, I need them to be able to trust that I will deliver on that. Without humility, I might prioritize my time in a way that puts my own needs first and doesn’t consider my commitments or obligations to them. Instead, I try to approach my time management in a way that focuses on two things: furthering the needs/objectives of my entire team for the long term, and unblocking any obstacles (sometimes I am the obstacle) in order to meet the short-term needs of individual team members. More concisely put:
empowering all of them, and enabling each of them.
Creating process docs to help our entire division do certain tasks more efficiently, a task which often feels like watching paint dry, is more important than my personal desire to organize my email inbox. Completing what individuals need to move forward, like deliverable reviews, is more important than having a super polished document that would make my manager like a presentation on my goals 5% more. Small choice: spend 15 minutes rearranging a document, or spend 15 minutes giving a team member input they need in order to move forward? Easy. Humility says the time goes to the team member.
Does that mean I’m accessible to them 24/7 or do their work for them? No. Absolutely not. It means that when they truly need me, they can trust that I’ll consider my priorities and find a way to get them the support they need.
Being trustworthy, heck — all of these characteristics — boils down to the choice to manage selflessly, and in a way that puts their individual needs above mine. (not to be conflated with some unhealthy/burn yourself out/not protecting your own time by putting other people first 100% of the time BS)
I cannot be selfless if I can’t accept that I, Kim Jones, am less important than what my team needs from me. There are some times when work that furthers my full division takes priority over work that supports my individuals — and there aren’t always hours in the day to do both. But the way that I choose which to prioritize comes back to humility. Humility either shut my mouth to hop in and help, humility to ask someone else to help, or humility to admit that I can’t do what I initially agreed to but I can help them find another way to get it done (though I try not to let this one happen too often).
I can’t be a servant leader (which was a very close second for me as far as answers go but I’ve decided it’s one and the same with humility) if I’m too proud or think it’s below my pay grade to get in the trenches and write a project brief or pull data for my team. The concept of ‘pay grades’ = ‘ways you contribute’ was really erased from my brain when I watched our President take out the trash and our Founder mop the floor after a company party one spring. Humility.
I don’t see how I can be a servant leader if my team can’t trust me to serve them in the ways that I promise to when I become their manager. (and I do — there’s a “Team Kim” expectation deck. It’s what they can expect from me as their manager.)
You might argue that you COULD do any of these things with a big head, and that’s probably true. But I don’t believe I could be as effective in any of these scenarios without checking my ego at the door.
Now, does that sometimes take a lot of patience because I would rather be doing literally anything else? :) Stay tuned for how humility lends itself to patience.