Top business leaders drive growth with a mix of ambition and humility.

That’s a hard balance, but according to Amer Kaissi the author of Humbitious: The Power of Low Ego, High Drive Leadership, it is exactly what sets great leaders apart.

“Humility plus ambition is a superpower,” says Amer. “From the data I have collected and reviewed, what sets top performers apart is the ability to dial up the right mix of humility and ambition based on the situation. Some leaders are too humble, some too ambitious.”

Recent research cited in both the Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal show Amer is right. The best bosses make humility a foundation of their leadership.

I recently spoke to Amer and he shared with me why humbitious leaders have a performance advantage, as well as key practices that set this type of leader apart.

The Humbitious Advantage 🏅

“Teams work better together when led by a humbitious leader,” says Amer. “They feel more engaged. They become more creative and feel safe to build out ideas. On the other hand, the humbitious leader can also be decisive in a crisis and lead when their team expects it.”

Amer shared several examples, starting with his mother, of leaders who used humility, compassion, and ambition to support high performance.  

His mother grew up and finished high school in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1960s. Rather than staying at home like most women at that time in her culture, she went to work with her father’s blessing. She used a strong and decisive but compassionate style to rise up from a frontline direct caregiver to president of a large orphanage. She held herself accountable and always had her colleagues’ backs.

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and youngest female leader in the world displayed a humbitious style of leadership after the Christchurch mass shooting that shook her nation in 2019. Her first priority was the victims’ families; she led with empathy and mourned with the families privately without fanfare or drawing attention. Then after a period of mourning, she moved into decisive action and led Parliament in passing a restrictive set of gun laws.

Jim Sinegal, co-founder and former CEO of Costco, used a humbitious style to drive rapid growth. Sinegal was rarely in his corner office at the company headquarters. Instead, he often traveled unannounced and with no entourage to different retail locations to talk with frontline workers. He saw these employees as the source of truth on what’s working in the stores as well as what else the stores and their employees needed to be more successful. He used frontline input to lead and guide growth strategies and decision-making with his senior leadership team.

Humbitious Practice 1: Listen to understand 👂 

“It sounds obvious, but listening to understand is the most important practice of a humbitious leader,” says Amer. “Leaders set the tone in any conversation. Too often they listen to reply and show they are smart, rather than listening to understand. It is about putting the ego on hold.”

Amer shared a few reasons that listening to understand is such a key foundation for humble leadership and high-performance organizations:

  • It leads to better decision-making, as humble leaders are able to listen to others’ views, incorporate data, and change their minds when appropriate
  • It allows them to surround themselves with smart people, who want their talents and expertise to be recognized and put to use
  • It models a type of leadership style and conversation that then can cascade into the entire organization to increase engagement and creativity

Practice 2: Create a Board of Advisors (aka “Loving Critics”) 💗

“Humble leaders know they do not have all the answers. They also know there is a tendency of employees or staff not to speak candidly to their bosses,” continued Amer. “It is for these reasons that humble leaders should create a board of advisors to tell them the truth. I call them ‘loving critics.’”

The management literature suggests a leadership “board of advisors” who can give objective feedback.  Amer encourages leaders to use their board or “loving critics” to get feedback on their leadership style and decision-making. He says to ask for input on things like: 

  • How did I show up as a leader? 
  • Did I ask good questions? 
  • Did I listen and respond effectively?

Amer further suggests not pushing back on feedback. If you hear things you don’t like, there is only one thing to say: “Thank you, you have given me something to think about.”

Practice 3: Re-Recruit Your A-Players 🏆

“Any leader is really only as good as their team,” Amer concludes. “It is a team that must execute day to day at a high level. Humble leaders focus on re-recruiting their A players constantly.”

As Amer says, all employees have choices and your top performers have more choices than others. Many are “being recruited as we speak,” he added.

Humbitious leaders are able to continually re-recruit their A players because they can put their ego on hold and think: “I really need this person.” No matter how smart they are, the humbitious leaders express appreciation on a regular basis. They verbally recognize individuals for their contribution in team meetings. They may write handwritten thank you notes.  They may organize special lunches or events.

The pandemic and Great Resignation have shown that employees’ attachment to their companies and leaders is often fragile at best. A humbitious leadership style is a strong remedy for this gap, helping organizations to support their employees in feeling engaged, creative, and valued.