Since Robert Greenleaf popularized the idea of servant leadership in the 70s, a lot has been said about the role of humility in leadership. Since then, various approaches to humility in leadership have emerged including Jim Collins’ level 5 leadership, authentic leadership, participative leadership, and others. If you strike up a conversation about what humility is, two themes usually emerge: putting others first and not thinking more highly of yourself than others. Of course, these response themes are two sides of the same coin, but in the dialogue on humility, these ideas are both common and not surprising. It seems we have a good idea of what humility is, but we know less about what humility looks like in action. The question leaders should be asking is, “What does humility look like to my followers?”
Humility in leadership encourages a number of beneficial outcomes in organizational culture: trust, a sense of safety, honesty, a sense of belonging and affinity with both the leader and the organization, and others. Since humility is such an important part of leadership, what should leaders actually do to demonstrate humility to followers? A new study by Bradley Owens, Ph.D., and David Hekman, Ph.D.1 seeks to answer this question. Unlike our informal conversations about what humility is, their answers are based on years of formal research and the results offer some unique insight into how people perceive humility in others.
Owens and Hekman conducted in-depth interview with 55 leaders across a wide variety of organizations (banking, high-tech, healthcare, financial services, ministry, manufacturing, and military) and at all levels of the organization (frontline to CEO). Their work yielded hundreds of pages of data and a core theme surfaced: “humble leaders model how to grow to their followers.”2
Owens and Hekman emphasized that leaders need to do more than just talk about life-long learning and professional development programs. They engage in three specific behaviors that model how to grow:
- acknowledging mistakes and limitations,
- spotlighting follower strengths, and
- being anxious about listening, observing, and learning by doing (modeling teachability).
These behaviors occurred as a group, each facilitating the others and this synthesis “created the perception [among followers] that the leader was obsessed with personal growth.”3
I like to simplify things as much as possible. So what I see above is:
- Personal transparency
- Affirmation of others
- Modeling teachability
Owens and Hekman are suggesting that humility is much more than putting others first. Their research ties the concept of humility in leadership to the process of growth and modeling growth to others. Using this model of humility in action, I challenge you to conduct a self-check. Would your followers describe you as humble?
Would they describe you as being transparent about your shortcomings?
Do they see you affirming the abilities of others?
Have they witnessed you actively listening, thoughtfully observing others, and learning new job skills?
Another reality check for you to consider is “What behaviors do you engage in that distract you from these behaviors?” You’re not sure? Just ask your followers.
1: Owens, Bradley P. and David R. Hekman. 2012. Modeling how to grow: An inductive examination of humble leader behaviors, contingencies, and outcomes. Academy of Management Journal 55, no. 4: 787-818.
2: Owens and Hekman, 801.
3: Owens and Hekman, 801.