“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill

In a recent interview with McKinsey Quarterly, Ann Harrison, Dean of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, was asked about her school’s four key principles: question the status quo; confidence without attitude; students always; and beyond yourself. Of the four, she quickly highlighted the second one, which conveyed specific meaning and importance for her.

“I don’t believe that attitude is a positive leadership quality,” she responded. “Confidence without attitude is critical for today’s leaders… More than ever, it’s important to be a great listener and not think you know all the answers.”

Although her comments were almost strictly focused from an academic perspective, their applicability extends far beyond the classroom. Her words echoed those of Winston Churchill, whose own definition of courage spanned a spectrum rarely embraced. It takes just as much courage to sit down and listen as it does to stand up and speak. That courage, in fact, is fueled by a leadership trait that is typically undervalued: humility. And humility, it turns out, lies at the core of confidence without attitude.


My initial exposure to the hallmarks of good leadership—although they were decidedly values-based in nature—came from my own father, and typically involved his “do this and you’re going to hell” method of teaching. Understandably, his fear of God lessons focused on the necessity of respect, integrity, and honor. When organized sports entered the picture, my coaches added others, such as loyalty and selflessness, building the sense of team necessary for success in athletics. During my college years, the ROTC cadre added more, including duty, honor, and personal courage, while introducing other attributes, competencies, and principles captured in FM 22-100, the leadership doctrine of the period.

Much of that initial tranche of learning was focused tactically, aiming for the be-know-do target of leadership. That model worked well most of the time, but by the time I was leading my first platoon, I knew something was missing. Getting the most from people meant motivating them on a different level, getting to know them, and showing a genuine concern for their welfare. Or, as my platoon sergeant put it at the time, “some of that Michael Bolton shit.”

What I learned during those early years proved invaluable as I gained more experience and led larger and more complex organizations. When I first wrote about those lessons, though, the reception was less than enthusiastic. On one particular essay—written during my time at the Army’s Command and General Staff College—an angry and annoyed colonel scribbled across the header in red pen, “The Army doesn’t do mamby-pamby leadership.” We still had a lot to learn as an institution.

THE (NOT-SO-BIG) THREE Leadership Qualities

The literature on the subject of leadership traits is substantial. Every profession has its own list, every field its own priorities. There are many areas of confluence – most lists include such traits as courage, integrity, loyalty, judgment, and character – and just as many areas of divergence. Everyone sees leadership through a different lens, and that’s understandable.

But there are three indispensable leadership qualities that exist on the fringe. Sometimes you will find one of them on a list of necessary traits, but rarely will you find all three. Why is a mystery to me. They are fundamental human traits that effectively connect us to other humans. But when it comes to leading those humans, we tend to ignore those necessary traits at our own peril.

1. Humility

Confidence without attitude. Humility allows us to be strong without being overbearing. It defies narcissism. It opens the door to approachability, the willingness to underwrite risk and accept mistakes, and to accept the input of others without ego getting in the way. For most people, humility goes hand-in-hand with being part of something bigger than yourself, where your contributions are not just a means to an end.

2. Empathy

In due course, humility opens the door to empathy. Empathetic leadership is deeply rooted in emotional intelligence, cognitive in nature but bound by strong human connections. Empathy enables us to genuinely engage with others on a meaningful, personal level, to understand and relate to their needs, and remain cognizant of their thoughts and feelings. Empathy doesn’t exist without humility—it requires deep listening skills that are equal parts auditory and observational, something that cannot happen if you’re always talking.

3. Compassion

Empathy, in turn, cultivates compassion, which takes genuineness to another level altogether. Leaders who genuinely, honestly care about others can inspire and influence them in ways unimaginable to leaders who adhere to more traditional—and less human—styles of leadership. Compassion strengthens bonds between people, improves collaboration, increases trust, and enhances loyalty. All hallmarks of effective leadership.

Beware of Robot Leadership

I recently had a conversation with a colleague who mentioned a mutual leader who likely couldn’t pass “the robot test.” Between laughs, I had to ask. Robot leadership is a real thing, a phenomenon where some leaders are unable to recognize or relate to human emotion. These leaders—all of whom suffer from a dearth of humility, empathy, and compassion—might be very capable leaders in their own right, but struggle dealing with the “people problems” present in every human work environment. If you’re leading a team of robots, this might not be a problem. If you’ve got human beings on your team, well… good luck.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.