Why Humble Leaders Succeed in the Long Run

Ray Williams
9 min readApr 18, 2024

Since 1980, leaders who left office since 2000 have been jailed or prosecuted in at least 78 countries, and that’s not counting impeachments or coups. Many cases, if not the majority, can be linked to the leaders’ extreme egotism and arrogance, and importantly, a lack of humility,

Although not convicted, former U.S. President Donald Trump has been indicted for criminal activity in several cases. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing an ongoing corruption trial while he initiated plans to overhaul the judiciary system. Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was convicted for corruption. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was charged with several crimes. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak went to jail for a corruption conviction. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s current vice president and former president, was convicted of fraud. Former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy, was convicted of illegal campaign financing in two separate cases. South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye was convicted for corruption. Taiwan’s former President, Chen Shui-bian, was convicted of bribery. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been barred from seeking office due to a tax fraud conviction.

When we think about highly successful business leaders, the names of Jordan Belfort (Wolf of Wall Street), the massive corruption and fraud by Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron, or Bernie Madoff, a convicted criminal and admitted mastermind of the largest known Ponzi scheme in history, come to mind. Yet, their meteoric rise eventually ended with a spectacular fall and jail. None of the people above have had a moment of humility.

In a new research study, Elsa T. Chan and David Hekman argue, “Humble leaders express their humility in three dimensions. They view themselves accurately and acknowledge their limitations. They show appreciation for their followers’ contributions. They are also open to ideas and feedback. When leaders show all three attributes, they are considered humble.”

The authors developed what they call the “Human capital theory which suggests that employees’ value can be enhanced by investing in their knowledge, skills and abilities. It’s not only important for employees, it also creates value for organizations.”

Their research provide these findings:

  • “Humble leaders tend to engage in more informal mentoring, and through that, they gain influence and power in promotability. They provide career guidance to their proteges and help them to prosper.”
  • “But at the same time, their engagement in learning also boosts their own human capital. In such a developmental relationship, humble leaders gain respect, prestige and prominence and gather a group of followers with high human capital.”
  • “A great deal of evidence shows that humble leaders outperform arrogant leaders. Yet, many leaders at every level have a hard time admitting mistakes, praising followers’ strengths, and being teachable.”
  • “Humility offers a more stable and less visible route to success. Humble leaders typically achieve their status through fostering growth in others, engaging in mentoring, and creating a network of highly capable, loyal and enthusiastic followers.”

In my article “Why We Need Humble Leaders,” I argue “Now, more than ever, we need humble leaders rather than the arrogant, narcissistic ones.”

The more honesty and humility employees may have, the higher their job performance, as rated by their supervisor. That’s the new finding from a Baylor University study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences that the honesty-humility personality trait was a unique predictor of job performance.

“Researchers already know that integrity can predict job performance and what we are saying here is that humility and honesty are also major components in that,” said Dr. Wade Rowatt, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, who helped lead the study. “This study shows that those who possess the combination of honesty and humility have better job performance. In fact, we found that humility and honesty correspond with job performance and predicted job performance above and beyond any of the other five personality traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness.”

Humble leaders are more effective and better liked, according to a study published in the Academy of Management Journal. “Leaders of all ranks view admitting mistakes, spotlighting follower strengths and modelling teachability as being at the core of humble leadership”, says Bradley Owens, assistant professor of organization and human resources at the University at Buffalo School of Management. A follow-up study published in Organization Science, using data from more than 700 employees and 218 leaders, confirmed that leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees and lower voluntary employee turnover.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Dan Cable argues, “Top-down leadership is outdated and counterproductive. By focusing too much on control and end goals, and not enough on their people, leaders are making it more difficult to achieve their own desired outcomes. The key, then, is to help people feel purposeful, motivated, and energized so they can bring their best selves to work.

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. They actively seek the ideas and unique contributions of the employees that they serve. This is how servant leaders create a culture of learning, and an atmosphere that encourages followers to become the very best they can.”

There’s a clear connection between moral and ethical behavior in leaders and their humility, according to F.O Walumbwa, and J. Schaubroeck writing in the Journal of Applied Psychology. They conclude, “Leaders who are humble in their character and model humility in their actions create the opposite environment of the amoral, unethical leader. This environment is grounded in respect, tolerance, and mutually beneficial outcomes for the firm and the individual. Leaders who are good role models tend to radiate positivity, and instead of spawning a downward spiral, they create an upward spiral that elevates pro-social employee behaviors.”

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, and are more likely to treat others in an egalitarian, respectful, and fair manner,” Wright argues.

Researchers Yanhan Zhu and colleagues studied the relationship between humble leadership and employee resilience and productivity. They found that humble leaders are willing to acknowledge their limits and mistakes, spotlight employees’ contributions and strengths, and are open to others’ advice, ideas, and feedback.

Amy Y. Ou and her colleagues at Arizona State University published a study in Administrative Science Quarterly that examined leadership traits, including self-awareness, openness to feedback, and a focus on the greater good and others’ welfare, instead of dwelling on oneself. Ou and her colleagues argue the self-awareness of humble leaders enables them to be open-minded and willing to learn, to appreciate both their strengths and weaknesses as well as those of others, and to transcend the self in the pursuit of a higher and more significant objective while continuing to improve.

They concluded, “Accordingly, humility provides integration of both high self-knowledge and low self-focus in identifying personal priorities about goal achievement.” They contend humble leaders’ “life pursuits are less about themselves than about the larger community, the greater whole, moral principles, or ultimate universal truth.”

Joseph Folkman writes in a report, “How Do You Become an Effective Leader? Stay Humble,” a follow-up to a previous article on humble leaders in Harvard Business Review, argues:

  • 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 demonstrate that people are just as important as results. The arrogant leader believes that results are the ultimate goal, and if a few people get negatively affected, that’s just the cost of doing business. Humility leaders understand the balance of achievement while being sensitive to individual needs. They also believe if you take care of people, they will be more engaged and dedicated, producing better results in the long run.
  • Humble leaders focus on gaining the trust of others. Humble leaders do everything they can to build up trust with others. They are more effective on the key levers that build trust: creating positive relationships, consistently delivering on their promises, and providing expertise and good judgment.
  • Humble leaders believe that success comes from cooperation and collaboration. The arrogant leader believes 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 others’ accomplishments.
  • Humble leaders are role models and walk their talk. When humble leaders ask others to do something, 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 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. They often feel that asking for feedback would signal a lack of self-confidence. 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. Arrogant leaders believe their job is to 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 these behaviors above represent the most significant 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.”

Researchers have 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 leadership process.

More recently, many scholars and experts have called for professionals and leaders in all professions to approach their roles more humbly. For example, humility is essential for lawyers and judges to interpret the law effectively and balance the ideals of justice and mercy. Competence and humility are the two essential dimensions of medical professionalism. Humility has also been spotlighted 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.

There are several similarities between the humble and servant leadership theories. Servant leaders view the development of followers as an end, in and of itself, not merely a means to reach the leader’s or the organization’s goals.

Leaders who humbly acknowledge they do not need to be the master of all skills and communicating to others they have much to contribute in achieving an optimal result also builds organizational commitment and increases trust in the leader argue researchers Robert S. Dennis and Mihal Bocarnea. Not only does accurate self-knowledge recognize one’s values, they argue, but humble leaders fully recognize the importance of others’ values and priorities — including the big picture capacity to pursue a better future that can come from collaborative action and the necessity of creating strong partnerships with others to achieve that optimal future.



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others