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.

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This was originally published on the OC Tanner blog.

Michelle M. Smith

A highly accomplished international speaker, strategist, and author on performance improvement; Michelle is a respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, employee engagement and talent. She’s published and presented more than 1,100 articles and lectures and is a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and governments.

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished industry leader who has worked in every facet of recognition and incentives, both domestically and internationally.

She has appeared on Fox Television and the BBC, and been featured in magazines like Fortune, Business Week, Inc., and Return on Performance; as well as national radio programs, and contributions to the books “Bull Market” by Seth Godin, “Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk,” and “Social Media Isn’t Social.”

Michelle is President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association and Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University. She’s Vice President, Research for the Business Marketing Association and serves on the Boards of the Incentive Federation and the Incentive & Engagement Solutions Council. She was also the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine.