Why We Need Humble Leaders
“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.”―Laozi
The research on moral and ethical leaders point to those who are honest and humble.
Now, more than ever, we need humble leaders rather than the arrogant, narcissistic ones.
And the more honesty and humility employees may have, the higher their job performance, as rated by the employees’ supervisor. That’s the new finding from a Baylor University study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences that found 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 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.”
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 the journal 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.
In an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” leadership expert Jim Collins argues the best leaders exhibit humility, shunning public adulation and are never boastful. In a widely read Harvard Business Review publication, Collins explained that the personal humility of Level 5 Leaders was typified by: A compelling modesty about their accomplishments; quiet determination rather than charisma; ambition focused on the company rather than self; willingness to accept personal responsibility for failures; and acknowledgment of the role of others in achieving success.
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 kind of environment to that of the amoral unethical leader. This environment is grounded in respect, tolerance, and outcomes that are mutually beneficial for the firm and for 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.”
Mark R. Leary and Chloe C. Banker, argue in their book, A Critical Examination and Reconceptualization of Humility,“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 best athletes should get more playing time, the best employees should receive larger salaries, the best actors should win more awards, and so on. “
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.
All theorists agree that humility is associated with an array of prosocial behaviors, and studies support this connection. For example, humility is associated with gratitude, willingness to help others empathy forgiveness and success in working and communicating with others In close relationships, humble people display greater skill at conflict resolution and are more likely to make sacrifices for others and they display more trust, greater cooperation, and less conflict.
Researchers Yanhan Zhu and colleagues studied the relationship between humble leadership and employee resilience and productivity and concluded: Humble leaderships can be defined as: a leadership style in which a leader evaluates him/herself and subordinates through a multifaceted and objective lens, appreciating subordinates’ positive worth, strengths, and contributions. It contains three behavioral components: (a) a willingness to acknowledge one’s limits and mistakes; (b) shining a spotlight on employees’ contributions and strengths; and © keeping openness to advice, ideas, and feedback.
Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein in their research and published study, Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness and Trust, argue that the growing complexity of the modern world requires stronger workplace relationships in order to accomplish tasks. They argue the pace of change in the world is increasing in just about every context.
The authors argue that the changing world necessitates humble leadership due to the changing nature of work:
- Leadership will become more about context and process rather than content and expertise.
- Humble Leadership can help overcome unconscious biases, segregation, and exclusion.
- Individual abuse of power is tempting. Humble leaders have a better track record of resisting the abuse of power in comparison with leaders with low humility.
- Humble leadership can help facilitate the movement toward agile organizations.
The authors make the salient point that the workplace now puts a premium on so-called “soft-skills” and experimental learning, and is moving away from authoritarian and one-size fits all training and development. They say that it’s the leader’s responsibility to foster those dynamics correctly by introducing the right tasks at the right time and at the right pace. A humble leader’s effectiveness will depend on how well you can incorporate soft skills into the group dynamic so your group can accomplish even its most complex goals.
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 the journal 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.
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.
Amy Y. Ou and her colleagues at Arizona State University published a study in Administrative Science Quarterly, examined the leadership traits associated with Confucianism. Those traits include self-awareness, openness to feedback, and a focus on the greater good and others’ welfare, as opposed to 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 own 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 terms of 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.”
In an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” leadership expert Jim Collins argues the best leaders exhibit humility, compelling modesty, shunning public adulation and are never boastful. In a widely read Harvard Business Review publication, Collins explained that the personal humility of Level 5 Leaders was typified by: A compelling modesty about their accomplishments; quiet determination rather than charisma; ambition focused on the company rather than self; willingness to accept personal responsibility for failures; and acknowledgment of the role of others in achieving success.
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 “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. 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. The 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. 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 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 acts 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 these 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.”
Increasingly, scholars and practitioners have argued the need for today’s leaders to approach their roles with more humility. As 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 spot-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.
There are several similarities between humble leadership theory and servant leader theory. 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 own 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.