Why Honesty, Humility and Hard work are necessary for performing teams…

Character First is an often-touted mantra these days in public companies, not-for-profits, small businesses, start-ups, even professional sporting teams.

But when we get down to the granular, many leaders struggle to enunciate with clarity how they live this in their organisation or even what it means.

Are we screening for ‘Character First’ during talent acquisition?

Do we exit those that fail the test…regardless of their seniority, importance and role in the organisation?

What attributes comprise good character?

If we all agree character is important, how come it is so fuzzy and ambiguous?

After more than two decades in management spanning various types of organisations we’ve concluded (supported by an increasing volume of research and science) there are three critical traits that contribute to good character: honesty, humility and hard work.

Where these three are wanting we find people who are lazy, dishonest, manipulative, self-entitled and exploitive.

Other destructive behaviours witnessed include narcissism, willingness to bend rules and take short-cuts, bullying, and greed.

On the other hand, people with high levels of honesty, humility and hard-work almost always make great employees, team-members and managers (leaders).

Whenever two or more people have to work together, basic honesty is a fundamental requirement.

We have argued for more than a decade that the trust-vulnerability paradigm is a necessary tenet (along with communication-candour and commitment-accountability) for successful teams.

But for people to be open and vulnerable there must first be a high-level functioning framework of trust.

And trust requires honesty!

Recent corporate history is littered with epic tales of dishonesty. In 2009, the Australian Royal Commission found “misconduct by banks and major financial institutions all too often been driven by greed ahead of basic standards of honesty.”1

Regrettably this was widespread across not just one institution but the entire industry. Yet, almost all of them had “integrity” or a version of it as one of their core values.

Humility is a rarely considered virtue in talent acquisition, talent management and performing teams. Yet, in our experience and research, it is critical…even a competitive advantage.

And we are not alone.

Humble people are not only more likely to be high performers, they tend to be aware of their own weaknesses, eager to improve themselves, appreciative of others’ strengths and focused on goals beyond their own self-interest.2

Humility is also linked to low staff turnover and absenteeism.

Sadly, many of these positives rarely register as humble people tend not to draw attention to themselves or their individual strengths and performance, rather attributing success to the team instead.

According to a study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business, “Humility is an important component of effective leadership in modern organisations. Humble leaders foster learning-oriented teams and engage employees. They optimise job satisfaction and employee retention.”3

Jim Collins, in Level Five leadership made the clear case that humility in a leader can catapult a merely good organisation into a truly great one.4

Effort, work-ethic, diligence, hunger, assiduity, motor…regardless of what we call it, has a direct correlation to success, results and performance.

Where there is too great an effort gap between participants on a project, the entire team’s performance falters. It’s difficult for anyone to sustain a high-level of commitment or contribution when others in the team slough off.

Effort together with the right mindset can make teams indomitable as detailed in Carol Dweck’s Mindset.5 Remarkably, this is true in varying environments, “developing a sense of persistence – to keep going, succeeding even in the face of failure.”

Whilst we have now developed scientific tools to provide us insights into a person’s honesty, humility and hard work that have proven to be quite powerful, simple observations and checks can be just as useful.

During my time in professional sport (basketball) watching video tape of how a player behaved before, during and after a game provided ample intelligence.

HONESTY: When he’d committed a foul, did he put his hand up and acknowledge his error, or did he try to feign innocence? Worse still, did he remonstrate with the referee?

HUMILITY: After an impressive dunk or unlikely three, did he attribute thanks for the assist, or did he flex like a peacock to the crowd?

HARD WORK: How often did he dive on a loose ball, exert that extra one per cent effort to get a deflection, work that little bit harder for that rebound, sprint back on a defensive transition, arrive early for his pre-game workout?

These observations, whilst time consuming, provided us with deep insights on an athlete’s character in the context of Honesty, Humility and Hard work. A practice that played no small part in turning around an almost decade-long championship drought for one sporting franchise.

We’ve developed the science behind these learnings into a 35-minute survey – The Scout – a one-page recruitment and engagement tool that has proven to be as remarkably successful in the workplace as on the field.

» HBR – Use Humility to Improve Performance by John Baldoni – November 05, 2009

» HBR – If Humility Is So Important, Why Are Leaders So Arrogant? by Bill Taylor – October 15, 2018


  1. The Final Report of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. Friday 1 February 2019. https://treasury.gov.au/publication/p2019-fsrc-final-report ↩︎
  2. The H Factor of Personality Why Some People are Manipulative, Self-Entitled, Materialistic, and Exploitive—And Why It Matters for Everyone Kibeom Lee & Michael C. Ashton ↩︎
  3. Expressed Humility in Organisations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership. 2013. Bradley P. Owens, Michael D. Johnson, Terence R. Mitchell ↩︎
  4. Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve Jim Collins ↩︎
  5. Mindset The New Psychology of Success By: Carol S. Dweck Phd. 2008 ↩︎