Thursday, December 1, 2016

Valuing Humility in Leadership


In a blog post earlier this year, I wrote about the value of productive narcissism for leaders in organizations, but also raised some questions about its dangers. In this blog, I want to focus on humility - a trait we often don’t associate with leaders, especially those larger-than-life leaders past and present. Even among CEOs, the leaders who readily come to mind for many include Jack Welch, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – none of whom we would think of as humble. Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his book Leadership BS, in fact argues that while there are advantages to modesty (which he uses as a synonym for humility), there are several disadvantages. He claims that immodesty and narcissism actually help people attain leadership positions and help them to advance. He cites research that overconfident individuals tend to achieve higher social status, respect and influence in groups. Narcissists tend to exhibit more energy, dominance, self-confidence and charisma than non-narcissists. And he concludes that most companies have a preference for selecting leaders who are immodest, grandiose and narcissistic. Because they are more extroverted and have higher self-esteem, narcissists are more likely to be chosen as leaders and to be seen as having leadership potential.

Furthermore, it could be argued that humility might not work all that well cross-culturally. Power distance, the acceptance of inequality and status differences, is one of the major cultural dimensions differentiating cultures, with high power distance cultures such as Russia and Malaysia placing great importance on status, rank and deference to authority, and low power distance cultures such as Australia and Denmark placing less emphasis on hierarchy and titles. High power-distance cultures seem to admire authoritarian leaders who run their organizations (and countries) with an iron fist, and who display no outward signs of weakness.

Let’s first define humility, and then let me make the case for the value of humility in leadership. Owens et al. (2013), after reviewing the literature, proposes this definition: … an interpersonal characteristic that emerges in social contexts that connotes (a) a manifested willingness to view oneself accurately, (b) a displayed appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, and (c) teachability. In my view, humility in leadership is first and foremost an orientation, a mindset, an attitude if you will, when engaging in interactions with others. The elements of this orientation are an openness to listen, a willingness to learn from others, and an awareness that one may not have all the answers.

Here are three reasons why humility is important for leaders. First, being humble tempers the excesses that extreme self-confidence can bring. The research on derailed managers shows very clearly that strengths when overused can lead to fatal flaws. Managers who derail show several traits and skills that more often than not narcissists have in abundance. They include lack of emotional stability, defensiveness, lack of integrity, insensitivity and abrasiveness. As summarized by Gary Yukl (2010):
“…the derailed managers could be charming when they wanted to, but over time it became evident that beneath the fa├žade of charm and concern for others, the person was really selfish, inconsiderate, and manipulative … when they disagreed with someone, (they) were more likely to be outspoken and offensive.”

In my judgment, Pfeffer’s conclusions about the value of narcissistic leaders are based on two flawed arguments. The first is that while the research does show that self-confident and outgoing individuals are more likely to be selected as leaders and to advance, it does not mean that they will be effective as leaders. This is perhaps why there are so many bad bosses, and why the psychologist Robert Hogan and others have cited that the base rate of managerial failure averages around 50 percent. In fact, Pfeffer’s descriptions seem out of synch with organizational reality. Executives who rise to the top because of their narcissism seldom are able to build sustainable organizational performance. They may be able to bluff and bully their way for a short period of time, but it all catches up to them. Perhaps thirty or forty years ago, such an executive might have been able to get away with this. But with the pressures for increased transparency and standards for a certain level of behavior, such narcissistic leaders do not survive for long in many corporations. Research has shown that all sorts of negative things can happen when people are placed in positions of power; for example, they begin devaluing the contributions of others, start thinking of themselves as superior, etc. The dose of humility in self-confident leaders helps them to become less arrogant. In fact, many other studies show that while charisma may predict career success and advancement, it does not necessarily predict organizational or firm performance. As Keltner (2016) has pointed out: “In primate social life, human and nonhuman alike, groups give power to those who advance the greater good. This basic power dynamic ensures that groups are led by individuals who will not be their undoing but will instead act with enthusiasm, kindness, focus, calm, and openness, thereby benefiting the groups.” (pp. 52, 55).

The second flaw in Pfeffer’s argument is that while it might indeed be the case that narcissists do display energy, dominance, self-confidence and charisma, these are not unique to narcissists. We do tend to like our leaders to show self-confidence and energy, but we don’t view these traits in isolation but as part of an entire package when we view them. It is the toxic mix of arrogance and disdain, along with a lack of humility, that dooms many narcissists. Pfeffer may also be confusing self-confidence with cockiness, and the two are actually very different. And the meta-analysis I mentioned in my earlier blog post found a wide range of relationships between narcissism and leadership effectiveness. On average, narcissists were no more or less likely to become effective leaders. In fact, there seems to be an inverted U-shaped relationship; leaders who are weak as well as those who are very strong narcissists don’t tend to become effective leaders.

The second argument for humility in leadership is that a humility mindset helps leaders make better decisions and build better teams through a balance between advocacy and inquiry. While leaders often believe that they have to be forceful and aggressive, and act like they know the answers (the advocacy position), they also need to balance this with a spirit of inquiry that encourages others to challenge them. They ask good questions, they seek feedback, they actively listen, they admit it when they make mistakes, they praise and recognize others and give them credit, and minimize bragging about their accomplishments and about themselves. In a recent Fortune article (November, 2016) about Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella, a former colleague said this about the Nadella’s humility: “(He) could suspend his disbelief and opinion to listen to you thoughtfully. The slight difference between listening to argue and listening to learn is not subtle. It’s huge. Satya is soft-spoken but energetic …”.  Recent studies of teams have shown that those led by high-empathy individuals tended to perform better on a series of collective intelligence tasks. Keltner (2016) argues that those with what he calls “enduring power” have empathy, are generous and tend to express gratitude. He does not explicitly use the term humility but this can be inferred from what he writes.

The third argument is that, in my experience, humility actually helps leaders when managing cross-culturally. When we are interacting with others from different cultures or nationalities, adapting a mindset that is flexible, accepting, curious and empathetic is essential (Henson, 2016). Humility is important especially in many cultures where building relationships and establishing trust are essential in developing business ties, as well as loyalty and commitment from local staff. I have seen many expatriates fail in their assignments when they believe that they know it all, especially because they come from corporate headquarters. Ethnocentrism is antithetical to humility. Even in low power distance cultures like Australia, for example, there is a cultural norm against the so-called tall poppy syndrome, where many want to put in their place those who have achieved something or are successful. Showing a dose of humility will certainly help.

Interestingly, there is a body of literature in the counseling field around cultural humility, and the importance of this orientation for therapists in working with their patients, especially those with different cultural backgrounds from the therapist. That is, the culturally humble therapist is open, self-aware, egoless, self-reflects and engages in supportive interactions (Foronda et al., 2016). Leaders of course are not therapists but do share an important common goal: that of creating commitment from others through positive influence. Furthermore, when leaders disempower us with their arrogance and lack of humility, our bodies start producing cortisol, which is what prepares the body for defense and a fight-or-flight response – not exactly ideal conditions for productivity and high performance. Cortisol increases our heart rate and blood pressure, and releases sweat in the hands. It also activates glucose production and stimulates the immune system. Over time, high levels of cortisol among employees lead to absenteeism and various health problems.

This is not a plea for leaders to suppress their self-confidence or their energy level, both highly important traits for leaders. However, confidence should not be confused with arrogance or self-righteousness. Leaders need to be confident; they need to have a point of view and express that point of view, but it does not mean that they cannot have some humility.

Here are three tips to developing a dose of humility. One, increase your self-awareness through regular self-debriefings and self-reflections. Reconstruct meetings that you’ve just had, for example, and, before jumping off to another meeting, take a couple of minutes to think about what you did that helped the meeting and what you might have done differently. Two, solicit feedback. On a regular basis, seek out individuals you trust and ask them what you could do to improve. Three, improve your listening skills. This is especially important for higher-status leaders who might not acknowledge their dependency on others, such as a senior surgeon at a hospital who is actually dependent on his operating room team. By practicing what Edgar Schein (2013) calls humble inquiry, this surgeon, as well as other leaders, can create a climate that gives others permission to help them should they need it.


Foronda, C. et al. (2016). Cultural Humility: A Concept Analysis. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 27 (3), 210-217.

Henson, R. (2016). Successful Global Leadership: Frameworks for Cross-Cultural Managers and Organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Keltner, D. (2016). The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. New York: Penguin Press.

Owens, B. et al. (2015). Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership. Organization Science, 24 (5): 1517-1538.

Pfeffer, J. (2015). Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. New York: HarperCollins.

Schein, E. (2013). Humble Inquiry. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Yukl, G. (2013). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.




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