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Smart, successful practices of genuinely humble leaders

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After nearly 18 months of selling, moving, waiting and moving again I finally arrived in my new home. With all the settling in I found myself looking for “one thing” several times over.

For the window coverings the one thing I wanted was someone who knew how to hang them straight without punching loads of little holes in the walls (trust me, I know this can happen). When it came to backsplash tile, the one thing I needed was attention to detail.

For general handyman stuff, the one thing I wanted was experience. Turns out the family friend who hooked up my washing machine didn’t have that one thing. He installed the water lines backward and I had to push the machine out from the wall and do it over myself. Oomph!

How about you? What’s the No. 1 thing you look for when you have a goal in mind? Let’s apply this same thought to how you manage your boating and marine business. As an entrepreneur and a leader, what’s the No. 1 skill you should be honing to ensure your continued success? With a positive economic outlook coming into view you may think the No. 1 thing you need is plenty of customers, and you’d be right — partially.

A rosy horizon makes it too easy for lessons from the recession to fade. Let’s face it: The knowledge we gain in the past has true value in how we apply it in the present and keep using it in the future. You still need all of the smart management techniques you used to survive the downturn, plus one other key component: great leadership. “Duh,” you may be saying, but stay with me. For exceptional leadership you also need the No.1 thing we’re now going to explore.

A few months ago,, the human resources blog, conducted a survey to determine what was “The Number One Leadership Trait You Really Need to be Successful” (Mark Toth, Feb. 28, 2013). Yes, communication skills were a popular response, but weren’t No. 1. The correct answer? Humility. Seriously? Well, yeah! Humility.

It got me thinking: How does the speech-giving, vision-sharing, inspirational and often bellicose leader of the masses or small business achieve success by being humble? Everyone else wanted to know, too. In Toth’s article he provided three characteristics that allow the humble leader to hit the top of the success meter. Let’s look at each of these now.

• Servant-hearted. What do servant leaders look like? They’re eager to help others realize success by using their power, resources and relationships to push through barriers that hinder achievement. They move bureaucratic noise and other gunk out of the way and allow hard work to have an impact. The humble leader doesn’t ignore process issues, which push down productivity, and doesn’t tolerate political infighting, which impedes progress.

There’s more. The servant-hearted superior is often heard saying such things as “What do you need to move forward?” or “What’s holding this program back?” as well as “What do we need to do to close this sale?” Challenges and opportunities are met with an open, positive approach, accented with support and encouragement.

Think of the servant-minded boss as an enabler whose actions are seasoned with knowledge, experience and collaboration. A succinct appreciation for how the servant leader serves can be found in a quote from Alan Loy McGinnis, author of “Bringing Out the Best in People”: “There is no more noble occupation in the world than to assist another human being — to help someone succeed.”

• Able to put others and the organization first. When you consider egocentric leaders who are missing the humility gene, they are bosses who put themselves first. Can you think of a few? Chances are we have all worked for a self-oriented leader during our careers. I once heard an executive say, jokingly, “When it’s time to reduce costs there will be a 10 percent pay cut for all employees except me.”

He said he was kidding, but no one laughed because they knew he had previously done it. The unassuming supervisor simply doesn’t do business this way.

For humble leaders, the success of the organization and others is their primary goal. Why is this so important? Because it generates group respect and a huge side effect — motivation! Everyone wants the bigger entity to win and, in turn, works as a dedicated, cohesive group. This concept is vividly witnessed when watching a coach with a winning team.

Assuming you have hired the right talent and placed them in the right roles, the leader who puts others and the organization first helps encourage employees to grow and stretch toward even bigger accomplishments. Wow! There’s an ongoing buzz of excitement because everyone knows their superior has the company and their best interest at heart.

• Willing to listen with humility to other points of view. Have you ever been in a meeting where the boss is doing all the talking? Whether you’re plotting a new strategy, considering a fresh opportunity or deciding how a problem should be handled, you don’t get the impression that he or she is listening to anyone’s input. I know you’re thinking the same thing I am: Ego and a lack of humility are in play. Why would such leaders listen to what anyone has to say if they believe they already know the best answers and ideas? The art of listening can be a difficult skill to master, and most everyone can benefit from practicing it more often.

Let’s consider what’s gained by leaders who listen with humility. For starters, they learn more than they knew before, which allows them to make more-informed decisions. This approach likewise indicates that employee input is valued. In addition, they receive a rich dose of ideas for generating even better results. The benefit of listening with humility is simply this: It allows collective knowledge to be put to work to generate larger opportunities and a higher probability of success. I like what Ernest Hemingway said about listening: “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”

When you think of the characteristics outlined above, it makes a lot of sense that humility is the No. 1 leadership trait you need to maximize success. This one thing unleashes a tidal wave of terrific things that happen as a result of it. As I looked for all of the No. 1 things I needed from skilled people to get settled into my new home, it occurred to me that that was how my home was built in the first place. It required a collection of No. 1 skills that went into pouring the foundation, framing, plumbing, electrical and more.

In many ways you can think of a leader’s humility as the timeless foundational trait that helps build and grow employee performance and business accomplishments. How many humble leaders do you know? Are you one of them? If yes, keep it up. If not, start working on it. Greater success for you and your entire organization humbly awaits.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue.



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