Humble Leadership: The Research Shows It’s a Competitive Advantage

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

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 programs and it’s often misunderstood.

The research team defined humility as a three-part personality trait consisting of an accurate view of the self, teachability, and appreciation of others’ strengths.

“Humble leaders foster learning-oriented teams and engage employees. They also optimize job satisfaction and employee retention,” says study co-author Michael Johnson.

The 6 leadership principles of humility

Two of the best predictors of performance — both academic and on the job — are intelligence and conscientiousness, and humility predicted performance better than both. 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 strengths and contributions — is also an effective way to engage employees.

To shape a formal leadership development program, the research suggests a curriculum designed around six basic principles:

  1. Know what you don’t know – Resist “Master of the Universe” impulses. You may excel in many things, but as a leader, rely on those who have relevant qualifications and expertise. Know when to defer or delegate.
  2. Resist falling for your own publicity – We all tend to put the best spin on our success, and then frequently forget that reality isn’t as flawless. Basking in the glory of a triumph can be energizing, but too big a dose is intoxicating and it can blur our vision and impair judgment.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Listen to the weird ideas – There’s ample evidence the most imaginative and valuable ideas tend to come from left field, or perhaps from an employee who may seem a little offbeat or may not hold an exalted position in the organization.
  6. 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.”

As Steve Jobs showed us, not everyone is humble

Of course, not everyone is born humble. Nature — especially in current times — can work against it.

But humility, like other virtues, can be developed. Resolve to work on your own humility and you’ll begin to notice and appreciate its power all around you.

Article Continues Below

Don’t be afraid to speak of your own failures, weaknesses, and blind spots, and how they have spurred your learning and ultimate success. Doing so will make us all better performers and more effective leaders.

This was originally published on the OC Tanner blog.

  • r/ally

    I think you need a point #7 – Don’t let anyone step on you. While being humble, you need to make sure people understand your skill set and value.

    • Michelle Smith

      Well said, r/ally. Humility is not hospitality, courtesy, or just a kind and friendly demeanor. Humility has nothing to do with being meek, weak, or indecisive.

  • Jeff Werner

    Being Humble and Strong, Encouraging, and Effective requires compassionate leadership and understanding and appreciation of Team and Players strengths and weaknesses as mentioned. Be Strong and Humble as Leadership goes. Ask your Wife and Children! Compassion……
    New Habits take time. Start now. Improve..
    Everyone will love the results, especially YOU!

    • Michelle Smith

      I love your enthusiasm, Jeff! Thanks for adding the inspirational challenge.

  • Raghunandan

    If you are humble, act with integrity, one can go a long way and gain respect from the community.

    • Michelle Smith

      Perfectly on point, Raghunandan – thank you.

  • Veronica

    Somewhat related – Quiet people may or may not be humble but they are, by their very nature, not tooting their own horn. As we’ve moved from a “culture of character” to a “culture of personality” (Susan Cain, 2012) we, as leaders, tend to undervalue quiet people. And, quiet people are often overlooked for leadership positions. The loudest person in the room may not be the one with the best ideas, skills, etc. – they may simply be the loudest person in the room. Suggested reading: “Quiet – The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking.” by Susan Cain

    • Michelle Smith

      Thanks for the additional insights, Veronica. There’s sound evidence that quiet, introverted (and even quirky) employees often bring the best ideas forward when they can rise above the ‘loudest person in the room.’ Research even supports that introverts may actually make better leaders than extroverts.

  • John Belchamber

    Great article thank you. This correlates to Jim Colin’s findings about Level 5 Leaders in Good To Great and Transformational Leadership behaviours.

    • Michelle Smith

      Absolutely spot on, John! In a longer article I’m writing on this topic I make that exact correlation to Level 5 leaders. Thank you.

  • marigrace mckay

    Recommend reading Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art … He’s a master.

    • Michelle Smith

      Thanks for the tip, Marigrace – I’ll check it out!

  • Max Schauss

    Two interesting articles on the topic:
    Bradley P. Owens, Michael D. Johnson, Terence R. Mitchell (2013) Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership. Organization Science 24(5):1517-1538
    Owend and Hekman, (2012) Modeling how to grow: an inductive examination of leadership behaviors, contingencies and outcomes, Academy of Management Journal, 55 (4): 787-818

  • Max Schauss

    Thanks for the article! Great input. I posted two quite interesting articles about the same topic on my last post for those interested. However, research on this topic until now has mainly been on a qualitative basis through interviews, since it’s a pretty young concept.
    For the first time, I am right now conducting a research project on the effects of expressed humble leadership on employee voice behavior on an empirical, quantitative basis:
    Visit ” maxschauss.wix(.)com/masterthesis ”

    Data collection is done on a large scale through a short survey of about 10 minutes. Anyone who is interested, please check out the website, participate and help me advance research in this field! I will keep you posted about the results of the research.
    Thank you a lot, your help is appreciated!