In an age where authoritarian power is being questioned from the classroom to the boardroom, the emerging research is conclusive — humility is a dramatically more powerful and effective way of leading.
Scientific inquiry into the power and effectiveness of humility in the workplace has shown that it offers a significant “competitive advantage” to leaders.
According to a study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business, humble people tend to make the most effective leaders (that’s right, the most) and are more likely to be high performers in both individual and team settings, according to associate professor Michael Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, researchers found that employees who rated their managers as humble reported feeling more engaged and less likely to quit. They also reported being more committed to a leader’s vision, and more trusting and receptive to their ideas.
“Our study suggests that a ‘quieter’ leadership approach — listening, being transparent, aware of your limitations and appreciating co-workers strengths and contributions, is an effective way to engage employees,” Johnson and fellow researchers Bradley Owens and Terence Mitchell write in the study.
The risks of lacking humility.
It’s no secret that executives are often hired based on skills and experience, but fired based on personality. Arrogance, narcissism, and Machiavellianism are factors that we now know regularly precipitates executive failure.
Former CEO of Enron Jeff Skilling, junk bond king and white collar criminal Michael Milken, and one-time leader at American International Group (AIG) Joe Cassano were all executives lionized by business publications as if their overconfidence was a clear indicator of paranormal abilities, super intelligence, infallible strategic vision and magical oratory skills. Yet, all of these leaders were credited as the cause for the collapse of their organizations.
More recently we’ve seen former Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries and Thorstein Hein of Blackberry exemplifying how leaders should not behave at the top. Yet while their behavior may seem obvious to some, it remains largely ignored by most boardrooms, who often look the other way because of the preconception that overconfidence equates to wisdom, when it can often be just a mask to hide self-doubt.
Humility may not be what you think it is.
One of the challenges in proposing a power in humility is that many of us associate it with weakness and an inability to stand up for ourselves. But humility, as it turns out, has nothing to do with weakness precisely because it requires a substantial inner strength to embody — one that not only welcomes feedback and criticism but knows that it is one of the fundamental ways that we grow. In this way, the ability to ruthlessly self-reflect and accurately see our limitations, as much as our strengths, is essential to reaping the benefits of humility.
Dean of HBS, Nita Nohria, whose department has conducted extensive research on various types of leaders, found that all of those who were successful shared one quality in common: reflectiveness, or the ability to possess an accurate view of themselves — warts and all. In practical terms this means that humble leaders have trained themselves to see the world around them with a much deeper level of clarity.
How to spot humility.
Whether we like it or not, those around us can see our humility (or lack thereof) far better than we can. Certain scenarios will quickly highlight our strength of character or betray a pridefulness that disguises insecurity. Some scenarios to consider when evaluating a leader’s humility include:
1. When they are being celebrated: Are they boastful and take all the credit, or conscious of the full range of elements and individuals that have caused the success?
2. When they are being criticized: Are they self-confident enough to receive feedback and learn from it, while honoring themselves in the process, or do they resist, defend their position and push back?
3. When they are engaged in competition: Do they respect their opponents, and see the opportunity to engage with them as a valuable learning experience from which to grow, or are they ruthless and disrespectful?
4. When they are in a momentary (or prolonged) position of heightened strength, or heightened weakness: Are they graceful to those “lower” on the hierarchy, and receptive to those “higher” on the hierarchy, without feeling that doing either somehow takes something away from them?
In each of these scenarios a leader will be triggered into revealing their level of humility by being asked a very specific question in various ways. One that we find at the very root of humility: How comfortable are you with power, in yourself and others?
The degree to which leaders have grown into a mature relationship with both sides of the coin of power (having it, and not having it) will be clearly illustrated in how they conduct themselves in response to it. Humility reflects a relaxed posture in relation to power, while arrogance will betray an immaturity and awkwardness in the face of it.
When leaders live from a strong, humble, center of gravity they are naturally perceived as more honest, trustworthy and capable. Because humility prevents excessive self-focus it also allows leaders to develop deeper perspectives in their relationships, which makes them more perceptive and capable of anticipating the future. They are not fooled by what they see on the surface, and are able to perceive behind the curtain of individuals and whole systems.
In this way, humility is a treasure that leaders can only receive once they have taken the journey into the very heart of who they are.
There’s an old saying that seems capture it: A pseudo leader always leaves you with a feeling of their greatness, while an authentic leader always leaves you with a feeling of your greatness.
(By Zachary Feder and Khatera Sahibzada first published by Entrepreneur.)
Cover art by David Gregory.