Across the pond

Humility: the key to effective leadership

Humility may be a virtue, but it’s also a competitive advantage.

Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP, Vice President, Business Development – O.C. Tanner


According to research from the University of Washington Foster School of Business, humble people are more likely to be high performers in individual and team settings and they also tend to make the most effective leaders. Yet the attribute of humility seems to be neglected in leadership development programmes and it’s often misunderstood. The research team defined humility as a three-part personality trait consisting of an accurate view of the self, modelling teachability and showcasing followers’ strengths. They viewed these three behaviours as powerful predictors of leaders’ success, as well as the organisation’s growth. “Humble leaders foster learning-oriented teams and engage employees,” says study co-author Michael Johnson. “They also optimise job satisfaction and employee retention. Humility is an important component of effective leadership in modern organisations.”


The best leaders are the people who are behind the scenes, guiding their employees and letting them shine. This quieter leadership approach – listening, being transparent, being aware of limitations, and appreciating employees’ strengths and contributions – is also a highly effective way to engage employees. The researchers found that such leaders model how to effectively be human (rather than superhuman) and legitimise ‘becoming’ rather than ‘pretending’. The essence of leader humility also involves modelling to employees how to grow.

Although growing and learning often involves failure and can be embarrassing, leaders who can overcome their fears and broadcast their feelings as they work through the messy internal growth process will be viewed more favourably by their followers. They also legitimise their employees’ own professional development journeys and will have higher-performing organisations. Leaders who embrace growth signal to followers that learning, growing, mistakes, uncertainty and false starts are normal and expected in the workplace, and this produces followers and entire organisations that constantly keep developing and improving.


For organisations wanting to cultivate more humility in their leadership ranks, the research suggests shaping a formal leadership development programme designed around six basic principles:

Know what you don’t know. You may excel in many things, but as a leader you must rely on those who have relevant qualifications and expertise. You need a degree of humility to see where your relative strengths are and where outside resources can help you get the  answers. You have to recognise skills in others and blend the right team around them. Know when to defer or delegate.

Resist falling for your own publicity. We all tend to put the best spin on our success — and then frequently forget that it reality wasn’t so flawless. Basking in the glory of a triumph can be energising, but too big a dose is intoxicating and it can impair judgment.

Never underestimate the competition. You may be brilliant, ambitious and audacious, but the world is filled with other hard-working, highly intelligent and creative professionals. Don’t let your guard down and think that they and their innovations aren’t a serious threat.

Embrace and promote a spirit of service. Employees (and customers) quickly figure out which leaders are dedicated to helping them succeed, and which are scrambling for personal success at their expense. You can’t fake humility – you either
genuinely want to serve and assist or you don’t, and others will pick up on this.

Listen to the weird ideas. There’s ample evidence that the most imaginative and valuable ideas tend to come from left field, or perhaps from an employee who seems a little offbeat or may not hold an exalted position in the organisation.

Be passionately curious. Constantly welcome and seek out new knowledge, and insist on curiosity from those around you. There are correlations between curiosity and many positive leadership attributes, including emotional and social intelligence. Take it from Albert Einstein: “I have no special talent,” he claimed, “I am only passionately curious.”


Humility inspires loyalty, helps to build and sustain cohesive, productive teamwork and decreases staff churn. Jim Collins was a fan of CEOs he saw demonstrating modesty and leading quietly. In his bestseller Good to Great, he called these CEOs Level 5 executives. Collins found Level 5 executives built enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They channelled their egos away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.

It’s not that Level 5 leaders had no ego or selfinterest. Indeed, they were incredibly ambitious – but their ambition was primarily for the institution, not themselves. They apportioned credit to factors outside themselves (mainly other members of their team) when things went well, but they took personal responsibility when things went poorly. Collins’ research found a direct relationship between the absence of CEO ‘celebrity’ and the presence of goodto- great results. At each of the critical junctures when Choice A would favour their ego and Choice B would favour the company and the work, time and again the good-to-great leaders picked Choice B.


Of course, not everyone is born humble. Nature and nurture can work against it. But humility, like other virtues, can be developed. We can become more humble if we focus on appreciating the strengths of others, on being teachable and admitting our mistakes.

Latest across the pond