A decade ago, qualitative studies established a precise definition of humble leadership, which brought about a surge in research on this topic. Thomas K. Kelemen, Samuel H. Matthews, Michael J. Matthews, and Sarah E. Henry reviewed 115 academic articles covering over 20,000 employees across industries, countries, and contexts. Based on the review, they provide essential recommendations for those interested in practicing humble leadership.
Recent news stories are replete with examples of narcissistic, arrogant, and demeaning leaders. Although many have called for leaders to be humble, research-based evidence on this topic has remained limited. One of the principal limitations of studying humble leadership in the past was the lack of a clear definition and consensus on measuring this phenomenon.
However, about a decade ago, inductive qualitative research emerged with a more precise definition of humble leadership, which centred on three core characteristics: (1) seeing oneself accurately, (2) appreciating others, and (3) being teachable. For example, humble leaders are willing to admit it when they make a mistake, they recognise and acknowledge the skills of those they lead, and they continuously seek out opportunities to become better. This clarity allowed researchers to study leader humility in a consistent manner and has brought about a surge in research on this topic.
Given the proliferation of research, we recently conducted a review of 115 academic articles examining humble leaders. That covered over 20,000 employees across various industries, countries, and contexts. Our review highlights four research-based insights about humble leadership and provides essential recommendations for organisations and their leaders.
Humble leaders improve performance: The most overwhelming and consistent finding is that humble leaders improve performance. Indeed, leader humility was found to increase followers’, teams’, and firms’ performance across more than 30 different academic studies. Further, humble leadership was found to benefit from CEOs to front-line leaders. Given the bottom-line advantages of humility, leaders should actively seek to develop its core characteristics.
One of the primary ways that humble leadership drives performance is through followers’ sense of empowerment or sense of self-efficacy. When leaders engage in humble leadership, followers begin to truly believe that they can achieve. As such, humble leadership not only grows companies via their performance but it also grows their employees. Finally, as an added bonus, humble leadership also boosts employees’ well-being.
Humble leadership works across cultures: Research on humble leadership has been conducted worldwide. In fact, the country with most studies is China, followed by the US. Research has also been conducted in other locations, including Portugal, Columbia, Taiwan, Australia, Pakistan, and more. The findings have been relatively consistent—the benefits of humble leadership extend to diverse settings. This is profound, given the cultural differences that exist across these varied contexts. Whether you are leading a team in Vietnam, Belgium, or Qatar, exhibiting humble leadership is worth the investment.
You can’t fake it: Existing research indicates that the adage “fake it till you make it” does not apply to humble leaders. One of the most well-studied factors that impacts the effectiveness of humble leadership is perceived authenticity. Research finds that if followers perceive that the leader’s humility is low in authenticity, it undermines the potential benefits that can come from this behaviour. Followers may even respond negatively to a leader expressing humility when they do not really mean it. Leaders cannot just pretend to appreciate their followers and act like they want to learn. They need to embrace these principles and be authentic about it. The clear takeaway here is that for leader humility to be effective, you actually have to mean it.
Leaders may have the most to lose: The one downside of humble leadership seems to be for the leaders themselves. Listening to others, trying to improve, and acknowledging your own mistakes can be draining and has been found to increase work conflict spilling over to family life. Further, others may view humble leaders less positively (e.g., as a sign of weakness or incompetence), indicating that being humble can sometimes hurt perceptions of leader effectiveness, especially for political leaders. Therefore, leaders and organisations need to take proactive steps to assure that humble leadership does not backfire on leaders.
For example, leaders need to find a way to recharge after displaying humble leadership (e.g., taking time to celebrate small wins, taking time to reset and refocus). Further, organisations can showcase and promote good examples of humble leaders to promote a more positive view of leader humility. In this way, organisations can promote a climate where humility is lauded and thus promote this type of leadership.
In closing, top decision-makers and key stakeholders have encouraged their leaders to be humble, and there are both anecdotal insights and robust evidence to back up many beneficial claims. The advantageous effects of humble leadership seem to be clear for both organisations and individuals alike, and as long as leaders display humility sincerely and take care of their own well-being, humble leadership is an effective way to impact organisations and society positively.