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The power of humility

By Craig Dowden


Executives are routinely lauded for their decisiveness and bold vision. They chart the course and people willingly follow. In fact, senior leaders are afforded almost rock star status both inside and outside their organizations. They are seen as the pinnacle of strength.

Survey research supports this assertion. As David Marcum and Steven Smith noted in their book Egonomics: What Makes Ego Our Greatest Asset (or Most Expensive Liability), when people are asked to list words most commonly associated with leadership, humility is found at the very bottom. However, emerging research suggests that leaders benefit tremendously from eating their share of humble pie.


What is humility?

Based on extensive research on the characteristics of humble leaders, SUNY Buffalo professor Bradley Owens came to three conclusions. Humble leaders:

  • Acknowledge their personal limits and faults while simultaneously taking responsibility for their mistakes.
  • Model teachability and are exemplars of learning.
  • Acknowledge the strengths, contributions, unique skills and knowledge of their team members. In doing so, people are engaged and motivated to perform.


Why does humility matter?

As the leader of a talent management firm earlier in my career, my team and I conducted a survey of three hundred people in the public and private sectors to learn more about the impacts of humility on leaders as well as their teams. The results were compelling.

Employees who reported working for humble leaders were significantly happier, more productive and experienced higher levels of job satisfaction. They also expressed a stronger desire to stay with their current employer and they were more likely to be top performers.

Humble leaders were also rated significantly higher by their employees in terms of their effectiveness and performance. Thus, humility truly provides a win-win scenario.

More recent research by leadership development consultancy Zenger Folkman echoes these conclusions. Summarizing their research in an article published in Harvard Business Review they concluded: “Indeed, the more they underrated themselves, the more highly they were perceived as leaders. We assume this is caused by a combination of humility, high personal standards, and a continual striving to be better.”

The ambitious scope of the study, which involved data from nearly 70,000 managers and 750,000 raters, makes the observations more striking. What’s more, the same research noted that leaders who underrated themselves (the hallmark of humility), also had the most engaged employees.


Practicing humble leadership

Given the myriad of benefits, the importance of humility cannot be overstated. This leads to a very important question: How can leaders demonstrate humility?

  1. Take ownership for mistakes. When people own up to their mistakes, it not only strengthens the relationship, it also encourages others to follow suit. When you make a mistake, freely admit it and take responsibility. Do this with your team, with your leaders, as well as with your customers.
    Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of Red provided some great advice in this regard, “People have an amazing capacity to forgive if you provide them with the opportunity.”
  2. Lead with questions. There are numerous ways that leaders can capitalize on this strategy. For example, ask team members for their input before starting a project. Rather than sharing your idea first, which will invariably influence the future direction, ask your team for their ideas on how to approach the work.
    Another way to use questions is by informally asking the team how you are performing as a leader. Ask the team, fellow colleagues, as well as external stakeholders and customers. This is a powerful and inexpensive technique to gather invaluable feedback.
    Leaders can also inspire the expression of humility within their teams by recognizing and rewarding people who ask questions (e.g. delivering affirmation/praise). Doing this highlights these behaviours as “best practices” and encourages people to follow suit in the future. Set the expectation that people should ask questions of each other at least as often as they advocate for their positions within team meetings. Provocative research has shown that striking this balance of inquiry versus advocacy is a key indicator of high performing teams.
  3. Shine the spotlight on the team. There are numerous ways to do this in practice. For example, rotate the chair of meetings from time to time, letting each team member take turns leading discussions for the day. This provides everyone an opportunity to flex their leadership muscles as well as to put their stamp on a meeting or project.
    Additionally, when a member of the team succeeds, make sure to promote this accomplishment both within the group, as well as throughout the organization. Lastly, if you have a subject matter expert who has worked extensively on a file, bring them to strategic/high-profile meetings so they can participate and share their insights.
    While it may feel that humility gets in the way of strong and effective leadership, the available evidence paints a very different picture. Indeed, research shows that humble executives are more effective and have more highly engaged employees.
    Perhaps it is time to refresh personal biases towards humility. Rather than seeing humility and strong leadership as oil and water, it is more appropriate and effective to see them as peanut butter and jelly, which combine wonderfully to reach their full potential. Only when we see strength in humility will leaders, their teams and their organizations truly be at their best.


Craig Dowden is the president of Craig Dowden & Associates. Attend his presentations, “Civility Matters,” on Jan. 30 at 11 a.m., and, “Do Good to Lead Well: The Power of Humility,” on Jan 30 at 3 p.m.

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