By Anja van den Berg
Humility is a core quality of leaders who inspire close teamwork, rapid learning and high performance in their teams, according to several studies in the past three years.
Humble people tend to be aware of their own weaknesses, eager to improve themselves, appreciative of others’ strengths and focused on goals beyond their own self-interest.
Among employees, it’s linked to lower turnover and absenteeism, says Sue Shellenbarger, an award-winning column writer for The Wall Street Journal. “These strengths are often overlooked because humble people tend to fly under the radar, making outsiders think it’s their teams doing all the work.”
If humility is so important, why are so many of today’s leaders and front-runners so arrogant?
- False belief 1: “I cannot be both humble and ambitious”
For one thing, too many leaders think they can’t be humble and ambitious at the same time, says Bill Taylor, author of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways.
“The tacit assumption among executives is that life is fundamentally and always a competition – between companies, but also between individuals within companies,” says Edgar Schein, professor-emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, and an expert on leadership and culture. “That’s not exactly a mindset that recognises the virtues of humility.”
But, says Taylor, humility and ambition need not be at odds. “Indeed, humility in the service of ambition is the most effective and sustainable mindset for leaders who aspire to do big things in a world filled with huge unknowns.”
- False belief 2: “Humility is soft, real-world problems are hard.”
Another reason why leaders find it hard to be humble is that 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,” Taylor explains.
“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, whoever and wherever those people may be.”
Edgar Schein offers helpful insights in this regard. He identifies three different forms of humility. The first, the humility that we feel around elders and dignitaries, is a basic part of social life. The second, the humility that we feel in the presence of those who fill us with awe with their achievements, is a standard part of professional life. It’s the third form of humility, which he calls here-and-now humility, that is most rarely seen in business, and the most relevant for leaders who truly want to achieve big things.
What is here-and-now humility? “It’s how I feel when I am dependent on you,” Schein explains. “My status is inferior to yours at this moment because you know something or can do something that I need in order to accomplish some task or goal. I have to be humble because I am temporarily dependent on you.
“But I also have a choice. I can either not commit to tasks that make me dependent on others, or I can deny the dependency, avoid feeling humble, fail to get what I need, and, thereby, fail to accomplish the task or unwittingly sabotage it. Unfortunately, people often would rather fail than to admit their dependence on someone else.”
Some challenges may call for a different leadership style, says lead researcher Dr Bradley Owens, an associate professor of business ethics at Brigham Young University. “For example, employees facing extreme threats or intense time pressure might perform better when a leader takes a more authoritative, top-down approach.”
However, according to a study published in the Journal of Management, companies with humble chief executives are more likely than others to have upper-management teams that work smoothly together, help each other and share decision-making.
The Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-best-bosses-are-humble-bosses-1539092123
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2018/10/if-humility-is-so-important-why-are-leaders-so-arrogant
Wilfred Laurier University Press: https://www.wlupress.wlu.ca/Books/T/The-H-Factor-of-Personality2
Social and Personality Psychology Compass: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00134.x?referrer_access_token=9XU9VRzyL2mc9kOICG84O4ta6bR2k8jH0KrdpFOxC65aJnPh930PWCfuCU3A5Fk23AbCsvdWbSX3uh-sJ5hUUPwr7ZsjkVqcNDmMFiVSlH5q6-NrYdaDgJVSRIfxY3XRdQa0mdrPXODajbp-pmxhDg%3D%3D
Journal of Management: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0149206315604187?mod=article_inline