Humility is a key element of the kind of leadership that creates growth for all involved.

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 There’s no shortage of opportunity in Seattle. The King county nonfarm workforce grew by 103,500 jobs between November 2017 and November 2018, a 3 percent increase in the metro area alone. Harnessing exemplary talent requires leaders who share a number of essential, personal qualities. What sets these people apart?

They are motivated (and humbled) by others.

Leadership isn’t about being the smartest person in the room. “It’s really about collaborating with people and moving them through change to a more positive future,” says Dr. Marilyn Gist, professor and associate Dean of Executive Programs at Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics. “Being able to do that successfully requires curiosity about and deep concern for others as well as behaviors that support their dignity.”

“It’s a common misconception that humility involves self-effacement or hiding accomplishments,” explains Kathleen McGill, Seattle University’s Manager of Executive Programs Outreach. McGill notes that a truly humble leader is one who recognizes the value of individual employees’ contributions and doesn’t regard her own position and input as somehow more critical to a team’s success. “In fact, a humble leader is not shy about asking others for advice or guidance, and isn’t uncomfortable to admit she doesn’t have the answers,” adds Gist.

They believe in and promote a respectful work environment.

Costco won Comparably’s Best Company Culture Award in 2018 based on anonymous ratings by employees. It’s no surprise: Craig Jelinek began his Costco career as a warehouse manager in 1984 and worked his way up in various executive positions before stepping into his CEO role in 2012. In a 2013 interview with The Motley Fool, Jelinek credited a large portion of the company’s success to building trust and satisfaction with his employees. Among his methods were valuing their quality of life and making sure there’s opportunity for growth.

What makes a work environment respectful? The three prongs include attitude, language and behavior — all of which should help employees feel safe and supported in their roles. Accomplishing this task comes down to a greater understanding a worker’s sense of dignity.

“We talk about treating people with respect, but I think we are somewhat superficial in our understanding of what that means,” Gist says. “We might think we’re being respectful if we have good policies around pay and benefits, but if you have a leader who lacks humility — who is condescending, who is divisive, who is dishonest — then you’re still violating people’s dignity, and, of course, [employees] aren’t going to give you their full effort. When a leader genuinely cares about his or her employees, that’s felt in the company.”

They operate with integrity.

Integrity — the consistency between word and deed — is a baseline quality for any manager aspiring to become a widely-admired leader. A strong moral compass and commitment to honesty inspire the trust of others who rely on a leader to do what he says he will. Integrity is particularly important in situations where the challenges can be highly complex and involve less-than-optimal tradeoffs. The nature of business, where leaders might face expectations to win at all costs, can also place leaders on the edge between right and wrong. At these junctures, a personal code of ethics built on honesty and transparency can act as a guidepost for leaders as they navigate their options.

They have a high level of self-awareness.

Emotional intelligence is perhaps the most important characteristic of a successful leader — the ability to make adjustments and relate to others with a down-to-earth perspective. “When you know yourself really well — the good and the bad — you can’t help but have confidence. Self-awareness enables you to use your strengths to their greatest advantage while understanding where you need to improve. Knowing and accepting your weaknesses is half the battle but once you get there, you can create the roadmap for how you want to change.” McGill says. “That type of self-knowledge is freeing and it’s also the cure for hubris.”

Gist echoes McGill’s point and notes that a leader who manages power with empathy has a better chance of success. “The natural assumption is, ‘Everyone is like me, and I know what works for me.’ When a leader understands that everyone is different and can back off a sense of ‘me, me, me,’ they’re going to understand and respect people better, and that understanding will be reflected in everything they do.”

The Seattle University Albers School of Business develops exceptional business leaders who are values-driven and committed to advancing the common good.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect Kathleen McGill’s job title as Manager of Executive Programs Outreach.