By Ray Williams
October 23, 2021
“Humility is the base and foundation of all virtues, and without it, no other virtue can exist.”–Cervantes
This article is an extended version of an earlier shorter version. Research references are added.
In my 40 years of training, mentoring and coaching leaders, I have been concerned about the increasing popularity of charismatic, celebrity type of leaders who far too often end up being unethical or incompetent. It seems that dependable, low-key, and humble leaders are not valued as much, despite their proven track record of success.
As organizations are getting increasingly complex and the well-being of workers is becoming paramount to healthy organizations, we need leaders that are empathetic and compassionate. Research has shown that humility has been strongly associated with emotional intelligence, a critical characteristic of the best leaders. More than ever, we need humble leaders.
What is Humility?
The term “humility” comes from the Latin word “humilitas,” a noun related to the adjective “humilis,” which may be translated as “humble”, but also as “grounded”, or “from the earth”, since it derives from humus (earth).
Humility gained a place of importance in various religions. The Bible (Philippians 2: 3-11) says “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” St. Augustine argued “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
In the Jewish tradition, humility is among the greatest of the virtues, and its opposite, pride, is among the worst of the vices. Moses, the greatest of men, is described as the humblest.
In the Islamic religion being humble means that one is modest, submissive, and respectful, not proud, and arrogant. In prayer, Muslims prostrate themselves to the ground, acknowledging human beings’ lowliness and humility before God.
Like other spiritual traditions, Buddhism sees humility as a virtue. From a Buddhist perspective, humility is a result of enlightenment and nirvana. In the Buddhist text on Maha-karuna (great compassion), humility is one of the ten sacred qualities attributed to Avalokite Bodhisattva, or Buddha of Compassion.
Buddhism also advocates humility as a moral precept. Confucius said, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” Lao Tzu said “I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.”
Hindus view humility as a spiritual and humanistic virtue. Ancient Hindu artists were never supposed to sign their names on their work, and temple artists, when creating statues of gods, are always supposed to leave a deliberate imperfection to show that they cannot really represent God.
Philosophers and spiritual sages have also identified humility as a “meta-virtue” that is foundational to other virtues such as forgiveness, courage, wisdom, and compassion.
Humility may be seen as foundational to other positive characteristics or a “temperance virtue” that guards against excess. Humility may temper other virtues, keeping them within the Aristotelian “golden mean” or the Buddhist “middle way”), and Confucian “zhongyong” (“doctrine of the mean). Humility prevents other characteristics from becoming extreme.
Non-Religious Perspectives on Humility Through the Ages
Outside of a religious context, humility is defined as being “unselved”, a liberation from consciousness of self, a form of temperance that is neither having pride (or haughtiness) nor indulging in self-deprecation. Humility, in various interpretations is widely seen as a virtue which centers on low self-preoccupation, or unwillingness to put oneself forward, so it is in many religious and philosophical traditions, it contrasts with narcissism, hubris and other forms of pride and is an idealistic and rare intrinsic construct that has an extrinsic side.
Socrates said of humility: “Pride divides men, humility joins them.” In describing the nature of virtuous self-knowledge as an appropriate attribute, Aristotle defined pride as respecting oneself. As with other virtues, Aristotle defined pride as the mean between a personal hubris and an insufficiency or a lack of self-esteem. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle explained that a person is proud if he both is and thinks of himself to be worthy of great things.
Mahatma Gandhi suggested that attempting to sustain truth without humility is doomed to become an “arrogant caricature” of truth. Albert Einstein said of humility, “I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” And finally, the esteemed writer C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Humility is an epistemically and ethically aligned state of awareness. Put another way, humility is a state of awareness in which the distortions mentioned above have been (even if only temporarily) eliminated; a state of awareness free of the epistemic and ethical biases generated by our natural centeredness.
Humility is a particular kind of self-orientation an accurate assessment of one’s talents and achievements, the ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations, along with openness to new ideas, contradictory information, advice, and an appreciation of the value of other people and things.
Unfortunately, our history has not been kind to the trait of humility. Dictionaries often describe humility as low self-esteem, self-degradation, and meekness. In a 2016 College of Charleston survey, 56% of 5th and 6th graders said that the humble are embarrassed, sad, lonely, or shy. When adults are asked to recount an experience of humility, they often tell a story about a time when they were publicly humiliated.
The Benefits of Humility
Researchers identified several benefits for individuals embracing humility:
- Greater virtue: Humility correlates positively with several virtues or virtue-related behaviors such as forgiveness, honesty, generosity, gratitude, and cooperativeness.
- More joy, less anxiety: Humble individuals experience fewer negative psychological symptoms and report better health. One study of older adults found those who were humbler rated their health more favorably over time.
- Better relationships: Humble people are perceived as being kinder and more likeable than are less humble people. In studies, humble individuals were found to be better able to receive love from others, and people with humble partners were more likely to be committed to the relationship and more likely to offer forgiveness for perceived offenses.
- Higher self-worth: Humble people, unlike individuals constantly seeking attention or validation from others, possess a secure sense of self-worth. It is what frees humble people from the need to impress or dominate others and allows them to value new ideas and respect the achievements of others as well as their own.
- More effective leaders: Forget the idea of humble people as weak leaders. Just the opposite, research shows. For example, while arrogance and unbridled egos have been at the center of corporate scandals, business leaders who are able to listen, be transparent about their limitations and appreciate the strengths and contributions of others are better able to navigate changing marketplaces and retain and engage talented employees.
- Less prejudice, greater tolerance: Humble individuals are more likely to appreciate and be receptive to unfamiliar beliefs, values, and worldviews, and to be empathetic and compassionate to those in need.
Research on Humility
Here’s a synopsis of the research on humility:
- June Price Tangney argues in Perfectionism: Theory: Research, and Treatment humility is a “rich, multi-faceted construct that is exemplified by an accurate assessment of one’s characteristics, an ability to acknowledge limitations, and a forgetting of the self”. In her article on humility in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, she suggests that humility involves: “An accurate sense of one’s abilities and achievements; the ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations; openness to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice; and an ability to keep one’s abilities and accomplishments in perspective.”
- Nansook Park and Chistopher Peterson describe humility as a temperance virtue that guards against excess.
- Dusa Vera and Antonio Rodriguez-Lopez describe humility in their article in Organizational Dynamics as “the mid-point between the two negative extremes of arrogance and lack of self-esteem”.
- July J. Exline and Ann L. Geyer suggest that humility involves a “non-defensive willingness to see the self accurately, including strengths and limitations”. The authors describe what they believe represents the positive basis of humility: “Humility is likely to stem from a sense of security in which feelings of personal worth are based on stable, reliable sources (e.g., feeling unconditionally loved, belief in value of all life) rather than transient, external sources such as achievement, appearance, or social approval.” Exline and Geyer suggest humility is likely to stem from a sense of security in which feelings of personal worth are based on stable, reliable sources (e.g., feeling unconditionally loved; belief in value of all life) rather than on transient, external sources such as achievement, appearance, or social approval.
- Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman’s exploration of human strengths in their book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification see character strengths in dominant eastern and western spiritual and philosophical traditions, reveals a set of core virtues that seem to be universally valued. Notably among them is the strength of humility.
- Michael E. Ashton and Kibeom Lee, in Personality and Individual Differences, in their elaboration on the so-called big-five personality model, suggest that honesty-humility represents the sixth dimension of personality. as a developmental orientation that is grounded in a self-concept that subordinates oneself to an ideal. They suggest that humility is manifested as self-awareness and self-improvement, other- appreciation and other enhancement, as well as self-transcendent pursuit and low self-focus.
- Amy Yi Ou and colleagues, writing in The Academy of Management Journal, describe how humility has often been defined in the context of self-esteem.
- Michael H. Morris and colleagues in their article in the Journal of Business Research argue that rather than thinking of self-esteem as being equivalent to humility, self-esteem can be viewed more appropriately as a predictor of humility. The researchers note the challenges of equating humility with high self-esteem, pointing to the tendency of those with high self-esteem to be more resistant to persuasion and to ignore negative feedback. Thus, they argue for the need to distinguish between authentic self-esteem and defensively high self-esteem. They suggest that the relationship between self-esteem and humility is contingent upon the extent to which an individual holds genuinely favorable feelings of self-worth versus holding negative feelings that he or she is fearful of admitting due to the need for external approval.
Humility and Modesty
The terms humility and modesty are often used interchangeably in the common vernacular. While the two concepts share some characteristics, there are clear distinctions to be made as well. Tangney suggests that modesty is about an individual’s having a moderate estimation of one’s merits or accomplishments. She argues, however, that while this is true of the person with humility, modesty doesn’t capture the other facets of humility such as a forgetting of the self and the appreciation of the worthiness of others.
In support of this argument, Peterson and Seligman suggest that, in contrast with humility, which is internally focused, modesty is more likely to be externally focused. Further, Morris, et al. argue that modest behaviors are, at the core, efforts designed to diminish the attention people draw to themselves. They suggest that like the notion of expressed emotion, modesty is subject to social norms, i.e., its expression is modulated by what is socially acceptable, irrespective of what the person who is being modest feels internally.
Seen in this context, modesty is an element of humility, but humility may or may not be an element of modesty.
Humility and Narcissism
Narcissism is a personality trait encompassing grandiosity, arrogance, self-absorption, entitlement, fragile self-esteem, and hostility. Narcissism has been linked with self-promotion and an inflated sense of self. The authors suggest that having a significant degree of either humility or narcissism diminishes the likelihood that there will be a significant degree of the other. Thus, the behavior motivated by humility is typically in stark contrast with behavior motivated by narcissism, and vice versa.
The narcissist’s inflated sense of entitlement can lead to self-serving abuses of power.
Moreover, S.A. Rosenthal, and Todd L. Pittinsky suggest that the leadership style of the narcissistic leader is typically autocratic, and that narcissistic people exhibit these characteristics: arrogance; feelings of inferiority; an insatiable need for recognition and superiority; prone to hypersensitivity and anger; lacking in empathy; prone to amorality; irrational and inflexible; and paranoid tendencies.
Jacqueline A. Gilbert and colleagues argue that narcissism can lead to toxicity in organizations because “excessive self-focus precludes an extension of self on behalf of others and encourages ‘winning’ at any expense”. The authors cite the book by Melvin Sorcher , Predicting Executive Success: What It Takes to Make It Into Senior Management that between 30 and 50 percent of managers and executives fail because of their mismanagement of relationships.
The descriptions of narcissism provided by the various scholars stand in sharp contrast to the descriptions of humility provided earlier. The presence of either narcissism or humility appears to diminish the likelihood of the other. There appears to be consensus that, while humility may be defined in part by an absence of narcissism, the absence of narcissism does not necessarily suggest the presence of humility.
How Humility Reinforces Greater Self-Awareness
Humility entails an unvarnished and honest assessment of who you are. Humility is necessary to eliminate our self-oriented tendency to view others as inferior, or not worthy of our compassion or kindness. In this way, humility quiets the incessant push and pull of our desires, wishes, and fears, deepens our capacity for patience, moderation, and modesty.
Other writers have defined humility in terms of more of a focus on others than ourselves, encouraging the development of our empathy, gentleness, respect, and an appreciation for the equality, autonomy, and value of others, as well as a concern for their welfare and a willingness to share credit for accomplishments with others. Humility can be seen as a virtue and opposite to several negative personality traits, including arrogance, vanity, conceit, egotism, grandiosity, pretentiousness, snobbishness, impertinence, haughtiness, self-righteousness, domination, selfish ambition, and self-complacency.
How and when is humility cultivated? Some writers would argue through early life experience–experiencing “limbic resonance,” humble people have a healthy sense of both autonomy and belonging through secure attachment, with caregivers and community members. When raised in a community and culture that fosters the formation of early emotional connectedness with and deep concern for others, humility will likely also begin to develop early, since the self-oriented biases that emerge as a function of our natural centeredness are being quieted through these social practices and are therefore not given the opportunity to manifest into self-absorption or self-worship.
Humility entails an unvarnished and honest assessment of who you are. Humility is awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness…an awareness that your individual talents alone are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.
What Inhibits Humility?
Mark R. Leary and Chloe C. Banker argue in their article, “A Critical Examination and Reconceptualization of Humility,” write “In contexts that operate as meritocracies, people who are good at something or who possess exceptional characteristics are entitled to preferential treatment within the domain of their expertise and accomplishments. The belief goes like this: “The best athletes should get more playing time, the best employees should receive larger salaries, the best actors should win more awards, and so on. In general, norms often specify that people who accomplish and contribute the most may deserve additional recognition, respect, or deference in contexts in which their accomplishments and positive characteristics are relevant. Believing that one deserves to be treated as different or special in such contexts is normal and appropriate.”
Ryan Holiday, in his brilliant book, Ego is the Enemy, sees ego as the enemy of humility. He defines ego as “an unhealthy belief in our own importance.” It is arrogance and self-centered ambition. “Ego is the voice that tells us we are better than we really are,” Holiday says, “ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us.”
Holiday blames our culture for fanning the flames of ego in our leaders: “Now more than ever, our culture fans the flames of ego. It’s never been easier to talk, to puff ourselves up. We can brag about our goals to millions of our fans and followers. We can follow and interact with our idols on Twitter and Facebook. We can read books and sites and watch TED Talks; and drink from a fire hose of inspiration and validation like never from self-help gurus. We can name ourselves CEO of our exists-only-on-paper company, We can announce big new on social media and let the congratulations roll in. We can publish articles about ourselves in outlets that used to be sources of objective journalism and stories of fact.”
Holiday says “Our culture tells us to believe we are special; to think big; to be memorable; and to ‘dare greatly.’ We believe our success must contain a bold vision or some revolutionary plan. We witness the radical risk-taking boasting of successful people in the media and try desperately to emulate it.” As Holiday says, ego tries to “reverse engineer the right attitude, the right pose.”
Jennifer Cole Wright in her edited book, Humility, says, “The central problem with low humility is not that people think that they are better than others. People low in humility expect others to treat them as special; try to reap social benefits that they don’t deserve; and their sense of entitlement leads them to behave in self-centered ways that disadvantage other people.” In contrast, humble people who do not put themselves above others, or expect preferential treatment, or think they are entitled to a disproportionate share of any benefits are more likely to treat others in an egalitarian, respectful, and fair manner, Wright argues.
Wright, says “We each stand, metaphorically speaking, at the center of the universe. This inherent ‘centered-ness’ biases our experience of our own needs, desires, interests, beliefs, goals, and values as being more immediate and urgent than those of others, manifesting in a natural self-orientation that—if left unchecked—can lead us to problematically privilege, prioritize, and favor ourselves. The central thesis presented here is that the interfering and distorting influences that arise from this centeredness are most effectively combated, and ultimately quieted, through the cultivation of humility. And further, humility should be considered a foundational virtue, necessary for the full development and exercise of other virtues, and maturely virtuous character.”
Humility and Our Concept of Leadership
Increasingly, scholars and practitioners have argued the need for today’s leaders to approach their roles with more humility. As a result of workplace complexity and fast changes requiring leader flexibility, recent leadership theories have begun to place greater emphasis on the bottom-up aspects of leadership. Some experts even argue for a need to change “the very idea of leadership—what it is and how it works and even how people even know it when they see it.”
Researchers have also suggested that leaders should move beyond the hero myth or “great man” theory of leadership by having leaders show their humanness by being open about their limitations in knowledge and experience, and focusing more on how followers influence the process of leadership.
More recently many scholars and experts have called for professionals and leaders in all professions to approach their roles with more humility. For example, for lawyers and judges, humility is important to effectively interpret the law and balance the ideals of justice and mercy. In medicine, competence and humility are seen as the two essential dimensions of medical professionalism. Humility has also been spotted lighted as important for political and military leaders, particularly in the current political climate.
Bottom-up, participative leadership lends itself to the inclusion of humble leadership. Although some advocate top-down strategic change approaches, others are now arguing the need for organizations to learn to “grow strategy from below,” seek bottom-up “small wins,” as reflected in the agile leadership model. Advocates of emergent change argue the importance of organizations being willing to live on the “edge of chaos” to achieve the level of flexibility and adaptability required for continuous transformation.
Research on Humble Leaders
The following is a synopsis of the research on humble leaders:
- According to research by Bradley P. Owens, Michael D. Johnson and Terence R. Mitchell published in Organization Science humble people are more likely to be high performers in individual and team settings and they also tend to make the most effective leaders. Yet the attribute of humility seems to be neglected in leadership development programs and it’s often misunderstood. “Humble leaders foster learning-oriented teams and engage employees. They also optimize job satisfaction and employee retention,” says study co-author Michael Johnson. The best leaders are the people who are behind the scenes, guiding their employees and letting them shine. This “quieter” leadership approach — listening, being transparent, being aware of limitations, and appreciating strengths and contributions — is also an effective way to engage employees. Another study by Bradley P. Owens and David R. Hekman published in the Academy of Management Journal showed that a leader’s humility can be contagious: when leaders behave humbly, followers emulate their modest attitude and behavior.
- Jim Collins describes how humility is integral to great leadership in his article in Harvard Business Review. Collins argues that, despite the historical association of humility with low self-regard, Level 5 leaders are simultaneously modest and willful, and shy and fearless. Their ambitions are directed towards the success of their organizations as opposed to themselves. This other focus enables them to channel their ambitions in ways that benefit the greater good without concern for their personal benefit. He says humble leaders demonstrate a compelling modesty; they shun public adulation and never boast; they act with calm and quiet determination, not relying on inspiring charisma to motivate but rather inspired standards; and they are self-reflective and tend to appropriate blame towards themselves and not others.
- A survey of 105 computer software and hardware firms by Amy Y. Ou and colleagues published in the Journal of Management revealed that humility in CEOs led to higher-performing leadership teams, increased collaboration and cooperation and flexibility in developing strategies. Ou and her colleagues found in another research study published in Administrative Science Quarterly at a managerial level, traits associated with humility–such as soliciting feedback and focusing employee needs–generated higher levels of engagement and job performance from their direct reports.
- Research by JianChun Yang and colleagues published in Frontiers in Psychology shows that humble leaders are more likely to create healthier and more effective organizational cultures, to develop employees’ potential, as well as coach and mentor them, and boost team morale, job satisfaction, and performance.
- A meta-analysis by Christopher Berry and colleagues published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows humility is not just associated with higher levels of leadership competence, but also lower levels of counterproductive work behaviors (e.g., deviant, unethical, and corrupt acts by leaders and their teams). If you want to minimize the risks of toxic and destructive leadership, just select leaders on humility.
- Edgar Schein and Peter Schein in their book, Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness and Trust, argue “ 50 years ago, we held on to the notion that the smartest person in the room was the CEO and the leader, we just don’t accept that premise any more. There is too much volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity for one leader to physically know everything that he/she needs to know there is nothing that gets in the way of that more than ego and hubris. Today, leaders need to have humility and admit they don’t know everything and have all the answers.”
- Research by Milton Sousa of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) reveals that the more power you have as a leader, the more humility will help to be a successful one. In his dissertation Servant Leadership to the Test: New Perspectives and Insights, Sousa discloses humility as one of the virtues of being a servant leader. Leaders can amplify the effect of their actions if they stand back and empower followers to take more ownership. This will gain leaders more respect and get employees more engaged. Surprisingly, this theory is most evident when the leader is in a high position of power, and not so much in the lower ranks, where traditional leadership aspects like accountability and providing direction seem to be sufficient. The higher you go on the hierarchal ladder, the more relevant humility becomes. Powerful humble leaders benefit from a more open culture where learning, honesty and listening gain prominence.
- Angela Sebaly, co-founder and CEO of Personify Leadership and author of The Courageous Leader, adds that humble leaders are focused on the big picture of mission and team rather than themselves. “Humility is about minimizing the self and maximizing the bigger purpose you represent,” Sebaly said. “When you think about humility in that way, it becomes a vital competency in leadership because it takes the focus from the ‘I’ to ‘We.’ Leaders with humility engage us and give us a sense of identity and purpose.”
- Xiaoxiao Gao, Ting Wu, and Po-Chien published their research on“Humble Leadership and Employee Voice Behavior “ in the Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Humanities Science, Management and Education Technology in 2019, in which they describe the connection between leader humility and ” employee voice, which can be defined as ” giving people opportunities to express ideas, concerns, and perspectives with authenticity and without fear of social or workplace consequences. That means employees have the ability to influence decisions at work through their feedback.” They conclude from their study: “The results show that the humble leadership style has a positive effect on the occurrence of employee voice behavior, that is, the humble leadership type increases the occurrence of employee voice behavior in enterprises. Humble leadership promotes relationship closeness, while relationship closeness also promotes voice behavior. Relationship closeness plays a part in mediating between humble leadership and voice behavior, that is, humble leadership influences voice behavior by positively affecting relationship closeness.”
The Personal Benefits of Humility for Leaders
While the preceding discussion outlined the strategic importance of humility for organizations, there remains the question of how humility might personally benefit the leader. Given the historical association of humility with low self-regard, it is not self-evident that the humble individual would view his or her humility as desirable or beneficial. Furthermore, as previously discussed, it is unlikely that an individual possessing humility would openly proclaim its benefits, given that doing so would not be consistent with a humble demeanor. Thus, an exploration of the literature on the benefits of humility is indicated.
Jim Collins argues that truly exceptional leaders can “subjugate their own needs to the greater ambition of something larger and more lasting than themselves”. In this context the leader’s humility can be viewed as the basis of a higher calling that can sustain and inspire in challenging circumstances, suggesting a clear and compelling personal benefit of humility.
Vera and Rodriguez-Lopez suggest that humility may foster a leader’s “pragmatic acceptance of failure”. They argue that, given that fear of failure is an enormous obstacle to initiative-taking in organizations, humility may operate as a reminder to the leader that failure is the price of learning. Moreover, and by extension, a pragmatic acceptance of failure may temper the leader’s tendency to excessively criticize the errors or failures of others, thereby enhancing interpersonal relationships and followers’ trust.
Exline and Geyer show the link between the humble characteristic of having an accurate self-appraisal and positive psychological adjustment. Moreover, the authors argue that because humble individuals are less likely than their narcissistic counterparts to engage in boastfulness and grandiosity, they are likely to avoid the negative impressions by others (and by implication strained interpersonal relationships) that can be engendered by excessive self-focus. It seems reasonable to conclude from the above that humble people might have a propensity to adapt their approaches in their interpersonal interactions based on their positive self-regard, accurate self-appraisals, and openness to others’ views.
Humility may offer another benefit through its influence on emotional self-management.The emotionally self-managing individual controls one’s presentations as a means of fostering positive interpersonal. Thus, the individual can maintain his or her emotional equilibrium despite internal or external triggers and is at ease with others.
There has been a great deal of emphasis placed on acceptance of one’s limitations in the humility literature. Such acceptance could represent a benefit to the humble individual by priming his or her valuing of others’ strengths and contributions as well as a positive orientation to learning and growth.
Finally, but no less importantly, Tangney suggests that humility offers “relief from the burden of self-preoccupation and the imperative to defend the vulnerable self”, and that humility may help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and social phobias—all of which are frequently associated with excessive self-focus. It seems likely then that the benefits of such psychological and emotional freedom could be realized in more positively externally directed energy, improved interpersonal relationships, and overall enhanced psychological adjustment.
How the Workplace Has Changed
The above notwithstanding, the workplace has fundamentally changed in a number of important respects. Karl E. Weick argues that 21st century leaders must “allow more migration of decisions to those with the expertise to handle them, and less convergence of decisions on people entitled by rank to make them.”
Similarly, globalization, increased complexity, and the growing importance of knowledge work have created a need for less hierarchical, more collaborative organizations as responsibility and initiative have become more widely distributed Debrora Ancona and colleagues argued in their article in Harvard Business Review.
Workplace changes such as decentralization, larger spans of control, lack of direct experience, and increasing numbers of knowledge workers make it harder to manage the performance of others. Organizational learning scholar Edgar Schein suggests that the combined forces of technological complexity, the evolution of information technology, globalization, and global warming have created an urgent need for leaders to adopt a helping role and be willing to accept help from their employees.
A Global Workforce Survey conducted in 2005 by the Towers Perrin consultancy firm found that only 14 percent of all employees worldwide are highly engaged in their jobs. Watson Wyatt found that about 44 percent of workers say that top management lacks honesty and integrity
In her seminal work, The Working Life Joanne Ciulla says “Massive layoffs signalled the end of the social compact between employers and employees that said if you do your job well, you can keep it. Ciulla continues: “When the social compact was broken, so too was the urbane façade of management that had been carefully crafted by social scientists and consultants over the past century.” Ciulla notes in her article in Business Ethics that in response to the increasing public concern for the morality of leaders in today’s organizations, management and organizational behavior scholars have intensified their analysis of ethical leadership.
Bruce Tulgan suggests in his article in Employment Relations, that the 21st century workplace is one in which traditional career paths and management techniques, long-term employment and cookie cutter approaches to employee relations are disappearing. Tulgan argues that mangers must shed traditional authority, rules, and red tape, and engage employees in one-on-one negotiation and coaching to realize organizational goals. Thus, old forms of command-and-control top-down management must be supplanted by leadership approaches that emphasize other skills such as emotional intelligence, adaptive work, and positive relationships with followers.
Humility represents a leader’s intrinsic desire to serve and has significant utility in the organization. Michael Morris and colleagues argue in their article published in the Journal of Business Research: “Given its potential importance in generating organizational and leader effectiveness, humility may offer a new lens through which to view and understand the leadership process”.
Dan Cable, in his article, “How Humble Leadership Really Works” in Harvard Business Review, and author of the book, Alive at Work says “One of the best ways is to adopt the humble mind-set of a servant leader. Servant leaders view their key role as serving employees as they explore and grow, providing tangible and emotional support as they do so.”
Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, write in their article “The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders” in Harvard Business Review cite their Catalyst study showing humility is one of the four critical leadership factors for creating environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included. They report “In a survey of more than 1500 workers from Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico, and the U.S., we found that when employees observed altruistic or selfless behavior in their managers — a style characterized by 1) acts of humility, such as learning from criticism and admitting mistakes); 2) empowering followers to learn and develop; 3) acts of courage, such as taking personal risks for the greater good; and 4) holding employees responsible for results — they were more likely to report feeling included in their work teams. This was true for both women and men.”
Expanding on the theme of accurate and realistic self-knowledge, Debora Ancona, and colleagues comment in their article in Harvard Business Review on the positive outcomes engendered by those leaders who acknowledge their “incompleteness,” and who use this knowledge as the basis for their reliance on others. They argue that incomplete leaders differ from their incompetent counterparts because they understand how they can work with others to leverage their strengths and balance their limitations.
Joseph Badaracco, writing on the topic of quiet leadership in Harvard Business Review, suggests that the most effective moral leaders he examined in his review of more than 150 case studies are the quintessential opposite of high-profile, heroic leaders. Rather, the most effective moral leaders are those who work behind the scenes creating quiet victories. He writes, “They move patiently, carefully, and incrementally. They right—or prevent—moral wrongs in the workplace inconspicuously and usually without casualties. I have come to call these people quiet leaders because their modesty and restraint are in large measure responsible for their extraordinary achievements.” Badaracco’s suggestion that leadership effectiveness is not found in dramatic shows of heroism but in humble acts conducted well out of the limelight points to what might represent an under-appreciated strategic benefit of leader humility.
Laura Reave summarizes several related studies that compare self and other ratings as a method for examining the association between humility and perceived leadership effectiveness in her article in Leadership Quarterly. She reports that the consistent finding in the studies she reviewed was that leaders who rated themselves lowest (suggesting humility) were rated highest (and thus perceived to be more effective) by their followers. Conversely, leaders who rated themselves highest were perceived as less effective. Similarly, leaders who had high opinions of themselves were found to be the most unreceptive to criticism. These findings clearly suggest the influence of humility on follower perceptions of leadership effectiveness.
Other scholars suggest that the strategic importance of humility in leaders is growing because of workplace trends that are creating a heightened emphasis on organizational learning, collaboration, and interdependence and suggest that humility is an important characteristic for leadership effectiveness in fostering supportiveness, socialized power, and employee participation. They suggest that humility leads to strong organizational performance through its influence on organizational learning and resilience. In particular, humility may help executives avoid the performance consequences of complacency and over-confidence.
Bradley Owens and colleagues reported in their article in The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Scholarship that humility predicts individual performance beyond the common performance predictors of conscientiousness, general mental ability, and self-efficacy. Further, he found that humility was the strongest predictor of performance of his study participants and that humility has a compensatory effect on performance for those with lower general mental ability. Owens suggests that this might be explained by the humble person’s openness to feedback and willingness to learn from and improve upon mistakes. In other words, humility may foster a certain persistence on task-related behaviors in the face of obstacles that enhances performance over time.
There is also heightened awareness of the importance for leaders to bring more than the cognitive skills of big picture thinking and futuristic vision to their roles. Daniel Goleman, et al. writing in the Journal of Organizational Excellence found that emotional intelligence is twice as important as cognitive skills in creating excellent performance at all levels of leadership. Self-awareness and empathy, both widely acknowledged as elements of humility, are described as two of the five components of emotional intelligence that the most effective leaders demonstrate.
Similarly Michael Morris and colleagues found high emotional intelligence as a predictor of humility, and by extension, effective leadership. Following on the above, Goleman determined that emotional intelligence plays an increasingly important role at higher levels of leadership where the exercise of technical skills is diminished. He suggests that the higher the rank of a person who is a star performer, the more emotional intelligence capabilities emerge as the reason for the individual’s effectiveness.
Finally, humility’s role in fostering prosocial behavior in organizations suggests another strategically important factor. Exline and Geyer observe that humility fosters enhanced interpersonal relating as well as helping and cooperation. Similarly,
Benjamin E. Hilbig and Ingo Zettler published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that honesty-humility is associated with cooperation and was linked to agreeableness and pro-social behavior as measured in the Big 5 personality model.
In their discussion of values and beliefs in the eastern spiritual traditions, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman suggest in their book Character Strengths and Virtus: A Handbook and Classification that from that perspective humility is not so much about recognizing one’s limits as it is about acknowledging a need to let go of the self and connect with a greater reality. The concept of forgetting of the self is a recurring theme in the scholarly literature on humility.
One group of researchers are examining humility in several different types of relational contexts (e.g., married couples, therapist and client, supervisor and supervisee, church leader and church member). Don Emerson Davis, Jr., and Joshua N. Hook conducted an in-depth study of the issue of measuring humility in organizations, which was published in the Journal of Personality Assessment, and concluded, among other things the following:
- “First, humility is most accurately judged when it is under strain. Humility involves self-regulation which, like a muscle, can be “weakened” with short-term use, but strengthened with regular exercise. Just like courage is easier to judge in the context of danger, humility ought to be easier to judge in contexts that evoke egotism, defensiveness, and conflict.
- “Second, humility is easier to observe accurately in others than it is in oneself. This research question aligns our work with the study of personality judgments. Character strengths that involve interpersonal behavior are often more accurately assessed with other-reports; however, internal behaviors (e.g., attitudes, thoughts) are often better assessed by self-report.
- “Third, humility strengthens social bonds. Commitment promotes a sense of “we-ness” in close relationships so that individuals enjoy sacrificing for a partner. This capacity to form cooperative alliances is adaptive, but only if there is a mechanism to avoid exploitation. Viewing others as humble should facilitate greater commitment, whereas viewing others as egotistical and selfish should decrease commitment. We have found initial evidence for this idea in studies on romantic couples, forming groups, and clients in therapy.”
- “Fourth, humility might optimize the benefits of competitive traits by buffering the wear-and-tear they can have on relationships. Just like oil prevents an engine from overheating, humility is theorized to buffer wear and- tear generally caused by traits that promote competition (e.g., high standards, competitiveness). This idea is consistent with the findings of Collins’s study of business leaders. CEOs are generally selected based on performance. However, being too competitive can strain one’s relationships with co-workers. Humility may be the secret ingredient that allows people to compete at high levels without leading to breakdown in one’s relationships.”
- “Fifth, higher levels of humility may be related to better health outcomes. If humility involves self-regulation in situations that generally lead to egotism or conflict, then it ought to be related to long-term health outcomes. Namely, relationship conflict is stressful. This conflict should amplify stress to the degree that people struggle to practice humility across relationships and contexts. People low in humility may struggle to form and repair strong social bonds, leading to lower social support and weakened coping. “
Is Humility a Capacity that Can Be Developed?
The question for many scholars and practitioners alike is how or if humility can be developed in organizational leaders.
Despite the variations in definition of the humility construct, there seems to be broad consensus that it can be developed. Peterson and Seligman argue that humility is a character strength that is influenced by experience. They point to eastern and western religious practices that can influence the development of humility by “encouraging self-transcendence”. Vera and Rodriguez-Lopez suggest that humility is “dynamic in nature and capable of improvement or deterioration”.
Pareena Lawrence in an article Business and Leadership in argues that the skills of empathy, social responsibility, and interpersonal relationships that are measured by the BarOn EQ-I, a widely recognized measure of emotional intelligence, all have elements of humility, and that these skills can be acquired and improved via training. Goleman also noting the importance of humility as a factor in emotional intelligence, concurs that emotional intelligence can be learned.
A study conducted by Bradley Owens, Alex Rubenstein, and David R. Hekman that entailed 64 interviews with leaders from business, health care, military, government, non-profit, and educational settings. They found that overall, there was a high level of consensus among study participants that humility could be developed in leaders and that leader humility would have a positive influence on performance. They say: “True humility represents a certain attitude towards life and the world around us. While it is possible to develop true humility, this learning process is hard because it involves an effort and a commitment to change rooted in personal preferences, and may lead to radical transformation of personal paradigms.”
The more honesty and humility an employee may have, the higher their job performance, as rated by the employees’ supervisor according to a Baylor University study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences by Wade Rowatt, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience. He found humility was a unique predictor of job performance. “In fact, we found that humility and honesty not only correspond with job performance, but it predicted job performance above and beyond any of the other five personality traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness,” Rowatt says.
Humility and Contemporary Leadership Theories
Humility and Servant Leadership
Servant leadership, as a leadership concept, was introduced in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf, a retired AT&T executive. The idea of the servant as leader came partly out of Greenleaf’s half-century of experience in working to shape large institutions—he worked in management research and organizational development for more than 40 years.
However, his ideas on the leader as servant emerged when he read Hermann Hesse’s short novel Journey to the East—an account of a mythical journey by a group of people on a spiritual quest in which the hero is in fact a seemingly lowly servant. Hesse’s writing inspired Greenleaf’s conclusion that a great leader is first experienced as a servant to others, and that this is the basis of his or her greatness.
Greenleaf writes in his book Servant Leadership that true leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others. He further suggests that servant leaders approach their leadership roles by being other-focused—placing the needs of the organization and its members ahead of their own. By orienting around serving as opposed to leading, they place themselves in the background where they can facilitate others’ development. In fact, the servant leader’s development of others is a central focus. Greenleaf’s model. Also important in his model is the creation of community and sharing power in decision making.
Morris, et al. suggest that the behaviors of the servant leader are consistent with humility, and that humility might be the primary vehicle with which servant leaders operate. Following on Greenleaf’s theme of developing others, Sen Sendjaya and James C. Serros argue in their article in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies that it is through the act of serving (versus leading) that the servant leader leads others into realizing who they are capable of becoming. Further, they suggest that the mental model of the servant leader is I serve as opposed to I lead. The authors caution that the servant leader’s values based, deliberate choice to serve should not be mistaken for weakness of character or a diminished sense of self-worth. Instead, the leader’s self-awareness, moral conviction, and emotional stability—elements that are often associated with humility—are the likely basis. The authors also point to a consensus among several scholars that the servant leader’s motivation stems from personal values and beliefs or their humility and spiritual insights.
Humility and Transformational Leadership
Transformational leadership theory was proposed by Bernard Bass in his book Leadership And Performance Beyond Expectations, who built on the 1970s work of James McGregor Burns. From the transformational leadership perspective, the leader’s role is to transform and motivate followers to transcend their self-interests for the sake of the organization. A transformational leader serves as a role model whose followers aspire to identify with and emulate. The transformational leader’s influence on followers is through charisma, or what Bass refers to as idealized influence.
Further, Bass proposed that transformational leader’s model ethical behavior, share risks, and consider the needs of others before self. They also provide intellectual stimulation by encouraging creativity, and they provide individualized consideration (attention) to followers with the goal of developing them.
The concept of exemplary leadership developed by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner in their book The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, is also referred to as transformational leadership by the authors. They cite five leadership practices of exemplary leaders: (1) modeling the way, (2) inspiring a shared vision, (3) challenging the process, (4) enabling others to act, and (5) encouraging the heart. The themes of other-focus and ethical role modeling that were surfaced in the work of Bass and Kouzes and Posner are themes that have been related in the literature to humility. Therefore, humility can be thought of as a core element of transformational leadership.
Humility and Charismatic Leadership
Jay A. Conger observes in his book The Charismatic Leader that charismatic leadership theory emerged in the 1980s and 1990s when organizations that had grown huge and bureaucratic were faced with tumbling market shares and the resulting large numbers of employee layoffs. For the first time in modern history, companies were confronted with the imperative to be more innovative. In the wake of this turmoil, corporate executives such as Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca and Apple’s Steve Jobs took center stage as the champions of desperately sought business turnarounds. About these larger-than-life gurus Conger writes, “Their swashbuckling charm and risk-taking heroism were appealing”. This occurred at a time when the widening disenchantment with management was being supplanted by a growing interest in “the leader as a source of strategic vision and an agent of innovation”.
Charismatic leadership theory describes leaders who articulate a vision, empower followers to achieve the vision, demonstrate exemplary behavior, and set high performance expectations for followers. Robert J. House and Jane M. Howell extend charismatic leadership theory to distinguish between personalized charismatic leaders and socialized charismatic leaders in their article in The Leadership Quarterly. They argue personalized charismatic leaders, who are in concept closely related to narcissistic leaders, act in their own self-interests, exploit and disregard others, and reject those who do not meet their demands. The authors suggest that, in sharp contrast, socialized charismatic leaders serve the larger interests of the organization and its members, develop, and empower their followers, are follower-oriented, and are generally inclined to be altruistic.
Humility and Authentic Leadership
Bruce J. Avolio and William L. Gardner suggest in their article in The Leadership Quarterly that the concept of authentic leadership is at the root of several positive leadership approaches, including charismatic and transformational leadership. They suggest that authentic leaders are deeply aware of their values and beliefs, and they are confident in themselves. Others perceive them to be genuine, reliable, and trustworthy. Moreover, they focus on building followers’ strengths, and they support followers to broaden their thinking. They are credited with creating a positive and engaging organizational environment.
The authors argue that the authentic leader develops authenticity via self-awareness, self-acceptance, and authentic actions and relationships. They emphasize that authentic leadership extends beyond the leader’s authenticity as an individual to encompass authentic relating with others. They suggest that the authentic leader’s relationships are characterized by (1) transparency, openness, and trust; (2) guidance toward worthy objectives; and (3) an emphasis on follower development. The themes of other-focus, self-awareness, acceptance of one’s strengths and limitations, a stable level of self-confidence, and values orientation, are all elements of humility that have emerged in the discussion of authentic leadership in the literature.
Thus, it might reasonably be concluded that humility plays a central role in authentic leadership, perhaps as the intrinsic motivating factor or personal orientation that influences authentic leadership behavior
If Humble Leaders Are Desirable, Why Do We Not Choose Them?
We are hypocritical about the kind of leaders we need and the kind we have traditionally chosen and supported. Specifically, we have tended to choose the extroverts, the flamboyant narcissists, the psychopaths, the incompetents, and mostly men, far more often than we have chosen the quiet introverts, those with enhanced emotional intelligence, the effective, and humble. Yet, research shows that humble leaders are more effective and enjoy more positive relationships with others. Humility and self-awareness are interwoven like a tapestry.
A management column in the Wall Street Journal appeared under the appealing headline, “The Best Bosses Are Humble Bosses.” The article reported that humble leaders “inspire close teamwork, rapid learning and high performance in their teams.” It even reported that one HR consulting firm is planning to introduce an assessment to identify personality traits that include “sincerity, modesty, fairness, truthfulness, and unpretentiousness,” inspired in part by what two psychology professors call the H Factor (“a combination of honesty and humility.”)
Bill Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company and the author, most recently, of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways, writes in the Harvard Business Review, “This celebration of humility sounds great, and it is, but it flies in the face of daily headlines in the media and the realities of our business and political cultures. Exactly no one would use the word ‘humble’ to describe President Donald Trump. Tesla CEO Elon Musk may be the most visible, influential, high-impact leader in Silicon Valley, yet it’s hard to imagine anyone with less ‘modesty’ or “unpretentiousness.’”
Taylor goes on to argue “All of which raises an obvious question: If humility is so important, why are so many leaders today, especially our most famous leaders, so arrogant? In the face of so much evidence that humble leaders do, in fact, outperform arrogant leaders, why is it so hard for leaders at every level to check their egos at the office door?”
There’s another big reason why it’s so hard for leaders to be humble, Taylor says, and it’s related to the first. Humility can feel soft at a time when problems are hard; it can make leaders appear vulnerable when people are looking for answers and reassurances. Of course, that’s precisely its virtue: The most effective business leaders don’t pretend to have all the answers; the world is just too complicated for that. They understand that their job is to get the best ideas from the right people.
A plethora of corporate meltdowns and resulting crises in financial markets not witnessed since the early 20th century’s Great Depression have prompted increased attention on the values and behaviors of organizational leaders. Research by J. David Knottnerus and colleagues published in Crime, Media, Culture, argues that corporate executives’ unbridled ego, hubris, sense of entitlement, and self-importance played a key role in highly publicized corporate scandals of the past decades. The widespread fascination with larger-than-life celebrity CEOs prominently displayed during the 1990s has given way to anger, frustration, and feelings of betrayal according to Ulrike Malmendier and Geoffrey Tate in their article in The Journal of Finance.
Andre J. Morris, Celeste M. Brotheridge and John C. Urbanski, argue in their article in Human Relations, “The romanticized notion of celebrity CEOs that has been lionized in the popular business press has its place in the leadership pantheon…. In particular, sustained organizational functioning is more likely to be the result of the celebrity’s antithesis, a person possessing a blend of humility and strong personal will.”
Margarita Mayo writing in Harvard Business Review examined the issue of the dichotomy between the research favoring humble leaders and the actual practice of hiring charismatic narcissists to lead organizations. She says, “The research is clear: when we choose humble, unassuming people as our leaders, the world around us becomes a better place . . .. Yet instead of following the lead of these unsung heroes, we appear hardwired to search for superheroes: over-glorifying leaders who exude charisma.” She goes on to say “The “romance of leadership” hypothesis suggests that we generally have a biased tendency to understand social events in terms of leadership and people tend to romanticize the figure of the leader.
Y. Sankar suggests that the leadership crisis in many organizations stems from a crisis of character in leaders. Similarly, arrogance and narcissism have been cited as reasons leaders make poor decisions Arljit Chatterjee and Donald C. Hambrick concluded their article in Administrative Science Quarterly, and that leaders or their organizations fail according to Dusya Vera and A. Rodgriguez-Lopez.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, in his article in Harvard Business Review, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” argues “ Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group.”
In stark contrast with narcissism, which is often described as entailing volatile swings from grandiose to self-abasing self-views, humility has been labeled as a temperance virtue that has a stabilizing or grounding influence on self-perceptions. Thus, though humility and narcissism are likely to be negatively related, a humble leader is not merely the opposite of a narcissistic one. In addition, since the strong negative emotions of envy and jealousy often hinder the ability to make accurate self-appraisals, scholars have suggested that effective emotional management and awareness are associated with humility.
In my article in The Financial Post, “Why Do We Still Idolize the Narcissist Boss, Even Though We Know the Humble Ones Produce Better Results?” I cite a research study completed by Charles A. O’Reilly III at Stanford’s business school. O’Reilly and his colleagues surveyed employees in 32 large, publicly traded tech companies. He contends that bosses who exhibit narcissistic traits like dominance, self-confidence, a sense of entitlement, grandiosity, and low empathy, tend to make more money than their less self-centered counterparts, even if the lower-paid CEOs exhibit plenty of confidence. O’Reilly says of the narcissists, “they don’t really care what other people think and depending on the nature of the narcissist, they are impulsive and manipulative.”
O’Reilly goes on to argue the longer narcissistic leaders are at the helm, the higher their compensation in comparison with the rest of the leadership team, or in some cases the narcissistic bosses fire anyone who dares to question or challenge them. There is a dark downside to this appearance of success however, O’Reilly contends. Company morale often declines, and employees leave the company. And while the narcissistic or abusive leaders may bring in the bigger paychecks, O’Reilly says there is compelling evidence that they don’t perform any better than lower-paid, less narcissistic counterparts. This argument has been supported by Michael Maccoby in his book, The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership.
Most businesses ultimately fail due to poor leadership. There are several persistent themes that can account for leadership failure, and all are related to a lack of humility. The first theme of poor management is an exaggerated sense of self and entitlement, often exhibited by narcissistic leaders. Such narcissists obviously lack humility but are quite adept at getting themselves into leadership positions. Ultimately, these leaders alienate their employees because they make promises that they cannot keep, they take credit for all successes, and they blame anyone and everyone else for any failures.
The second theme of poor management is a lack of awareness about how one’s actions are affecting others. These leaders are insensitive to the “people side” of doing business. Further, they fail to recognize this insensitivity as a shortcoming. While humble leaders are open to listening to what other people feel and think, insensitive leaders are unwilling to listen to opinions and feedback from others.
The third theme of poor management is an exaggerated need for social support and approval. Narcissistic leaders and those with low humility are in constant need of positive reinforcement, praise, and personal loyalty. Similarly, the fourth theme of poor management is insecurity and low self-confidence. Both traits are rooted in insecurity and fear of rejection. Leaders who lack humility are desperate for attention and approval of others. Indeed, much of their expressed arrogance and overconfidence is intended to mask a deep desire for the approval of others. Leaders who are appropriately humble are seen as confident and suffer from neither diffidence nor arrogance.
Developing Leaders’ Humility
The research seems to agree that leaders can develop greater humility. Here’s some suggestions.
Joseph Folkman writing in his article in Forbes, “How Do You Become an Effective Leader? Stay Humble”, a follow up to a previous article on humble leaders in Harvard Business Review, argues “How do people make the judgment that a leader is arrogant or humble? Arrogant leaders don’t parade around with a badge indicating they are conceited. Yet, there is a high degree of consensus within organizations about who is humble and who is arrogant. The reality is that there are a set of very predictable behaviors that send clear signals about an individual’s humility or arrogance.” Folkman studied 1,072 leaders and concluded the following:
- Humble leaders are rated higher than arrogant leaders on an overall leadership effectiveness index. A comparison of arrogant and humble leaders on an overall leadership effectiveness index composed of 54 behaviors that differentiate the most effective from the least effective leaders. Arrogant leaders were rated at the 34th percentile, while humble leaders were rated at the 66th percentile.
- Humble leaders demonstrated that people are just as important as results. Arrogant leaders believe that results are the goal, and if a few people get negatively affected, that’s just the cost of doing business. Humble leaders understand the balance of achieving while still being sensitive to individual needs. They also believe if you take care of people, they will be more engaged and dedicated, which will produce better results in the long run.
- Humble leaders focused on gaining trust from others. Humble leaders do everything they can to build up trust with others. They are more effective on the key levers that build trust, which are: creating positive relationships, consistently delivering on their promises, and providing expertise and good judgment.
- Humble leaders believe that success comes from cooperation and collaboration. Arrogant leaders believe that they can accomplish goals on their own. They resist collaboration because they want all the credit for themselves. The humble leaders know that organizational success comes from people working together. They ask others for help and resist taking credit for the accomplishments of others.
- Humble leaders are role models and walk their talk. When humble leaders ask others to do something, they make sure they do it first. Arrogant leaders are okay with asking others to do what they do not do. They are fine with having a double standard, or perhaps they don’t see it. In many ways they act as though they are a privileged class where rules for others do not apply to them.
- Humble leaders ask for and act on feedback from others. Humble leaders ask others for feedback and work hard to implement their suggestions for change. Arrogant leaders feel that they do not want or need feedback from others. In fact, they often feel that asking for feedback would signal a lack of confidence in themselves. Therefore, they resist asking.
- Humble leaders resolve conflicts productively. Arrogant leaders tend to create conflict with others. This is due in part to a belief that conflict is a good thing that fuels competitive energy from others. Humble leaders feel that conflict creates a negative work environment and work hard to resolve conflicts.
- Humble leaders give others honest feedback. The arrogant leaders believe their job is to be the judge and let others know when they make mistakes. Their feedback is almost always negative and corrective. The humble leader realizes that honest feedback needs to reflect an individual’s performance.
Folkman says the behaviors listed above represent the largest differences between arrogant and humble leaders. “Looking over the list,” Folkman says, “it isn’t difficult to realize why humble leaders win. In many ways, humble leaders believe that leadership is the ability to get work done through others. In contrast, arrogant leaders believe leadership is the ability to get work done by others.”
Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Sahib offer these suggestions in their Harvard Business Review article:
- Share your mistakes as teachable moments. When leaders showcase their own personal growth, they legitimize the growth and learning of others; by admitting to their own imperfections, they make it okay for others to be fallible, too. We also tend to connect with people who share their imperfections and foibles—they appear more “human,” more like us. Particularly in diverse workgroups, displays of humility may help to remind group members of their common humanity and shared objectives.
- Engage in dialogue, not debates. Another way to practice humility is to truly engage with different points of view. Too often leaders are focused on swaying others and “winning” arguments. When people debate in this way, they become so focused on proving the validity of their own views that they miss out on the opportunity to learn about other points of view. Inclusive leaders are humble enough to suspend their own agendas and beliefs in so doing, they not only enhance their own learning, but they validate followers’ unique perspectives.
- Embrace uncertainty. Ambiguity and uncertainty are par for the course in today’s business environment. So why not embrace them? When leaders humbly admit that they don’t have all the answers, they create space for others to step forward and offer solutions. They also engender a sense of interdependence. Followers understand that the best bet is to rely on each other to work through complex, ill-defined problems.
- Role model being a “follower.” Inclusive leaders empower others to lead. By reversing roles, leaders not only facilitate employees’ development, but they model the act of taking a different perspective, something that is so critical to working effectively in diverse teams.
Michael Morris and colleagues suggest the following:
- Know what you don’t know– Resist “Master of the Universe” You may excel in many things, but as a leader, rely on those who have relevant qualifications and expertise. Know when to defer or delegate.
- Resist falling for your own publicity – We all tend to put the best spin on our success, and then frequently forget that reality isn’t as flawless. Basking in the glory of a triumph can be energizing, but too big a dose is intoxicating, and it can blur our vision and impair judgment.
- Never underestimate the competition – You may be brilliant, ambitious, and audacious, but the world is filled with other hard-working, highly intelligent, and creative professionals. Don’t let your guard down and think that they and their innovations aren’t a serious threat.
- Embrace and promote a spirit of service – Employees (and customers) quickly figure out which leaders are dedicated to helping them succeed, and which are scrambling for personal success at their expense.
- Listen to the weird ideas – There’s ample evidence the most imaginative and valuable ideas tend to come from left field, or perhaps from an employee who may seem a little offbeat or may not hold an exalted position in the organization.
- Be passionately curious – Constantly welcome and seek out new knowledge and insist on curiosity from those around you. There are correlations between curiosity and many positive leadership attributes, including emotional and social intelligence. Take it from Albert Einstein: “I have no special talent,” he claimed, “I am only passionately curious.”
Leaders are the most consequential members of any organization. Unfortunately, the current cultural attraction to leaders who are charming, charismatic, and self-promoting (e.g., transformational leadership) is leading us in the wrong direction. Some of our most effective leaders are hiding in our organizations, masked by their own humility. For the future success of our organizations, finding them is critical. Humility can be a powerful force in enhancing and developing leader self-awareness. They go hand in glove.
We live in a world where ego gets attention, but modesty gets results. Where arrogance makes headlines, but humility makes a difference. Which means that all of us, as leaders or aspiring leaders, face questions of our own: Are we confident enough to stay humble? Are we strong enough to admit we don’t have all the answers? Here’s hoping we reach the right answers.
Read my books:
- Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Ethical and Moral Leaders.
- I Know Myself and Neither Do You: Why Charisma, Confidence and Pedigree Won’t Take You Where You Want To Go
- Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.
- Dragon Tamer