Humble Leadership Should Not Be an Oxymoron

4 min read

When people think of the term “leader,” a whole array of words come to mind. Yet, a quick Google search of the phrase, “my boss is…” reveals the sad truth that most subordinates face. Indeed, my last attempt at this Google search (which I perform quite frequently in classroom settings) resulted in the suggestions of “my boss is gaslighting me,” “my boss is a micromanager,” and “my boss is a narcissistic bully,” among other worrisome prompts. The simple truth is that although leaders are thought to “inspire, motivate, and guide,” when the rubber meets the road, too many managers are followers’ number one headache.

“Organizational dichotomies” represent the nuances, paradoxes, or Catch-22s that managers often face and need to embrace to succeed. Here, I argue that humble leadership—which a pessimist may view as an organizational dichotomy—shouldn’t be one. Below, I synthesize arguments made in a paper I published with several other scholars in which we reviewed the existing academic research on humble leadership.

What is Humble Leadership?

In their qualitative work on humble leadership, Dr. Brad Owens and Dr. David Hekman interviewed leaders from a variety of sectors—high-tech firms, religious, military, etc.—and identified three humble-leader “behaviors”: (1) a degree of self-awareness, (2) appreciation for others, and (3) being teachable. Later research also found similar themes of humble leaders; today, these three are generally seen as the core subcomponents of humble leadership.

In practice, humble leadership may take the form of a boss stating their limitations, such as confessing that they are unsure what the best way forward is from a technical perspective. In line with what scholars call “moral leadership,” it also takes form as leaders look outward instead of the customary inward. Unfortunately, the idea that a leader would be humble often contradicts many popular ideas of leadership, which often imagine a narcissistic, authoritarian, and elite image. Perhaps this is why “humble” and “leadership” may be viewed as an oxymoron or an unsolvable dichotomy.

Outcomes of Humble Leadership

Although people may initially view humility as a sign of weakness and “bad for business,” the evidence suggests the myriad benefits of leader humility. In our review of humble leadership, we identify multiple positive outcomes, including, but not limited to, decreased career distress and turnover intentions, as well as increased empathy, gratitude, innovation, corporate social responsibility, prosocial behavior, and creativity. As this list shows, the benefits of humble leadership have positive implications for organizations, teams, the leaders themselves, and their followers.

In full transparency, the popular song is correct that “every rose has its thorn” (at least, in most circumstances), and humble leadership is no exception. However, the downsides that have been identified, such as being emotionally exhausted as a result of being a humble leader, represent a small minority and should be interpreted only in the broader context of the positives. Based on existing research—and a recent meta-analysis—there is general scholarly consensus that humble leadership is good for organizations.

Normalizing Humble Leadership

Even if there is existing scientific evidence of a particular effect of an action, that does not always translate into people’s practice. (Case in point, the negative impact of smoking is well-known; however, millions of people in the United States continue to make this risky decision). Given the overwhelming evidence in favor of humble leadership, what can forward-thinking professionals do to ensure that “humility” and “leadership” are two words that occur more frequently together?

There are multiple frameworks for change; however, for simplicity, let’s briefly apply the model proposed in the New York Times bestseller Influencer, which forwards the idea that leaders should approach change from multiple avenues. In our present context, individuals can begin to encourage those who display humility, increasing their motivation to be humble leaders. This encouragement can take the form of followers expressing gratitude when leaders are humble. Similarly, decision-makers can create structural components that increase leaders’ ability to be humble, for example, by investing in a system that allows supervisors to request feedback from followers.

Of course, these are only preliminary ideas, and individuals are best equipped to know how to promote humble leadership in their current circumstances. The main takeaway is that humble leadership will stop being an implicit oxymoron as soon as multiple stakeholders take action to prioritize humility as it relates to leadership.

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