Where Humility Fits in a Leader’s Toolkit

A new study suggests that humility can be a detriment to executives. But it's still a useful tool for leaders.

When it comes to leadership, everybody agrees that character counts. If only everybody could agree on what “character” is.

Charismatic leadership is appealing—until it shades into arrogance. Servant leadership is effective—so long as it doesn’t make you look like a pushover. Finding a happy medium is a tricky business, which may be why advice suggesting that you only need be one or the other is so attractive. (Business books in the ’80s tended to prescribe a Jack Welch-y, take-no-prisoners approach; the popular literature now focuses on softer, more team-focused tactics.)

Leaders lead over time, not just during certain tasks or projects.

So it would be tempting to read about a recent report on humility and leadership and conclude that being humble isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The article, “The Consequences of Humility for Leaders: A Double-Edged Sword,” published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, is based on a number of experiments that tested what happens to leaders’ authority when they demonstrate humility.

Short version: It starts crumbling.

As a summary from Notre Dame University (home base for one of the study’s authors, Dr. Cindy P. Muir) puts it, the study finds that “those who display humility are viewed as less competent, independent, and influential.”

Well, yes and no. The paper does conclude that “displays of humility lead to no overall benefit to the leader.” But it’s important to note that the study is structured more as a snap judgment of a leader than a fuller portrait over time.

In one part of the study, the “leader” managed a simple exercise where students were asked to solve anagrams. The “humble” leader regularly framed the exercise as a group activity (“I really appreciate your efforts!”), while the “not-humble” leader was more self-focused (“I hope you appreciate my efforts!”). In another part of the study, participants read different versions of a profile of a CEO. In one version, the leader shouldered setbacks alone (“I have made my share of mistakes”); in the other, the leader described them as collective problems (“Our team made our share of mistakes”).

There’s nothing wrong with framing an experiment this way, and the study’s findings strongly suggest that the people around you may not be so very impressed with your humility as you think they are. (Humility, when overdone, can be its own kind of arrogance, after all.) There are certainly lessons to be learned from the study about the impact of how an executive publicly discusses accomplishments.

“Our work suggests a bit more caution and information should be provided to our current and future leaders as there are both potential benefits and downsides to expressing humility,” Muir said in a report on the study from Notre Dame. “Especially if being perceived as competent and influential is particularly important.”

But leaders lead over time, not just during certain tasks or projects. Part of the job of a leader, as I wrote back in April, is trust-building, which always takes time. And that can require a leader to operate in a variety of different modes: alternately hard-charging and team-focused when the need arises. That doesn’t make a leader schizophrenic so much as flexible. The “quiet leadership” many association executives spoke about in relation to servant leadership can be crucial when it comes to managing boards or other volunteer groups with a variety of personalities.

I asked Dr. Muir over email whether she thought the study’s findings would be any different for mission-focused organizations like associations. Likely not, she said. But she added that the findings shouldn’t be treated exclusively as a prescription to reject humble behavior.

“We did find that humble CEOs are viewed as more warm, helpful, and honest than their non-humble counterparts,” she said. “They just are simultaneously viewed as less competent, assertive, and independent.”

This might feel like being thrust back to square one: Humility is OK, until it isn’t. But I’m inclined to think that the evidence shows something more optimistic. Humility is a tool, and quite often a valuable one. As with anything in your leadership toolkit, you just have to recognize when to deploy it.

(yuriz/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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