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Celebrating 50 years of Building High Performance Corporate Teams - 1971 to 2021

The military is known for producing good leaders. This series features leadership wisdom from former Canadian military leaders now in private enterprise. In each article, a military Leadership Trait will be described by a former military leader, and then applied to business. In the Commentary section, we will discuss how to develop the trait, or how to identify that trait in an interview.

Leadership Trait – The Courage to Be Humble

“One of the most important leadership traits I learned in the military was humility. That’s right, humility. What could humility possibly have to do with leadership?

Well, as I found out over the years, humility is essential for effective leadership. This has only been reinforced for me since I began working as a consultant and coach seven years ago. Humility is the attitude of knowing that you may not have all of the answers and that you need the help of others to achieve your mission and objectives. Humility is also the trait of someone who accepts that they don’t have all the information to make a perfect decision, and that they must act despite uncertainty and high levels of risk.

To be an effective leader, you have to involve your entire team in the process of creating and implementing decisions and plans. It is impossible for one person to know everything and to have all the required skill sets. This is why the military surrounds young officers with a cadre of non-commissioned officers who can advise them and provide the counterbalance of experience to the exuberance of youth and intellect. Even more experienced officers recognize that it is essential to gain the opinions of subordinates and key advisors before making important decisions.

All leaders must make decisions with imperfect knowledge, uncertainty, and risk. With a little humility, the willingness to accept that they don’t have all the answers, and the courage to ask for advice and help, leaders can make a difference and perform better under all conditions as the conductor of a team rather than a one-man band.

Richard Martin is a former Canadian Forces Infantry Officer and founder and president of Alcera Consulting Inc. He is a consultant, speaker, and executive coach. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to exploit change, maximize opportunity, and minimize risk.

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.


As Richard states in his title, it takes courage and great self-assurance for a leader to demonstrate true humility. This flies directly in the face of the generally accepted wisdom that the leader is supposed to have all the answers. But having the courage to involve your subordinates in the decision-making process pays great rewards in terms of making better decisions, and fostering employee engagement. Quoting President Harry Truman, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

To identify appropriate humility in an employment interview setting, ask candidates to discuss their greatest achievements, and listen closely to their answers to see if their sentences start with “I” or “we”. A word of caution, however; you will need to test candidates using “we” sentences to ensure they aren’t just putting on airs of false modesty, or (even worse) taking credit for someone else’s results.