The Power of Humility in Leaders

March 22, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
image the power of humility in leaders

How Can Leaders in Organisations Learn from this?

Ashley Merryman, as an antidote to what she sees as the rise of narcissism, explores the positives from demonstrating humility, summarising the research in her article.

Are there benefits she asks to being humble; does humility improve academics or relationships or company bottom lines?

There seems, however, to be some lack of understanding as to what being humble is about. Those demonstrating true humility, Merryman says, is not about being when someone has an accurate assessment of both his or her strengths and weaknesses, and sees all of these in the context of the larger whole. She says that there’s a recognition and acceptance that he or she is a part of something far greater and is both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. Recognising their abilities, those who are humble ask how they can contribute and recognising their flaws, ask how they can grow.

In her post, Merryman looks at some of the research to date. She introduces the ground breaking work that Owens and Hekman carried out studying humble leadership – from military settings, manufacturing organisations and within ministry leadership. They concluded that the hallmark of a humble leader is his or her willingness to admit his or her mistakes and limitations.

The humble leader is driven by the desire to improve, revisiting and updating plans, soliciting input from others and encouraging others to take initiative. Merryman says that importantly, humility doesn’t weaken leaders’ authority but gives them more flexibility in how they use their power.  She cites the example of a Navy commanding officer who might be egalitarian while planning an operation, encouraging junior officers to contribute ideas, but when operating within the mission when a single, sure voice is needed, he or she is more authoritarian. And then, afterwards, during the debrief, once again peers and subordinates are asked for their opinions, highlighting contributions. And, because of  this, the humble leader’s followers are more motivated and work harder.

In contrast, Merryman shows that Owens and Hekman found non-humble leaders get their strength from a position of certainty. The non-humble leader promises that he or she does have all the answers, and that he or she knows exactly what to do, ignoring information that might cause him to re-think his strategy. A non-humble leader concentrates his or her power, removing others who have strong abilities in case they are a threat; followers carry out edicts rather than contribute new insight.

So what can this mean for leaders of organisations?

Perhaps in difficult, uncertain or precarious times, people search for a leader who is confident in his or her unwavering surety of ability and perhaps the non-humble leader offers comfort and inspiration.

In a Journal of Management study of 105 computer software and hardware firms, humble CEOs were found to have reduced pay disparity between themselves and their staff. They dispersed their power. They hired more diverse management teams, and they give staff the ability to lead and innovate. Humble leaders have less employee turnover, higher employee satisfaction, and they improve the company’s overall performance. And other studies show that  humble employees behave more ethically, being more honest during negotiations and less likely to sabotage the work environment.

And there is another lesson from research: arrogance and humility are contagious with both being able to be taught and caught. So, if leaders act arrogantly, dismissing learning and alternative views, their people will think narrowly, but, Merryman sums up if our leaders are humble and focus on growth, so do we.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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