The Humble Leader

The Humble Leader by Dr. Greg Waddell

Have you ever wondered at why we humans have this tendency to dislike the very things that are for our own good? Whether talking about eating the right foods or engaging in healthy behaviors, we tend to be attracted to what is not good for us. I think the same is true of attitudes; certain attitudes bring great benefit and peace to our lives but there is a part us that resists them intensely. One of those attitudes is humility.

Referring to the need for more humility among government officials (Do we still need that today?), G. K. Chesterton wrote:

If our faith comments on government at all, its comment must be this — that the man should rule who does not think that he can rule. . . . It means this — that we must take the crown in our hands, and go hunting in dry places and dark corners of the earth until we find the one man who feels himself unfit to wear it.

Even though our natural inclination is to cringe at the idea of humility, there is a good body of evidence demonstrating the organizational advantages of having a leader who is humble of heart. For example, Bradley Ownes and David Hekman have written an insightful paper about their research in this area. I want to share with you some excerpts from that article.

“Humble leaders [help] followers value staying in motion and creating fixes that [are] ‘good enough for now’ rather than permanent, perfect.” The self-important, top-down, leader, on the other hand tends to demand perfection and to berate anything less than perfection.

Humble leaders also create more flexible organizations. “Units with leaders described as ‘non-humble’ in contrast, were reported as being much less fluid in organizing their structure.” In other words, humility opens the leader to alternative ways to get things done, whereas pride creates a mental blindness that insists on only one interpretation of the situation.

Humble leaders value “moving in the right direction rather than making the right decision.” This is similar to the previous point about perfection. Humble leaders are better equipped to recognize and value incremental improvement and growth.

Humble leaders also tend to avoid the posture of absolute certainty and this behavior encourages followers to contribute their ideas and solutions. “When leaders set a ‘certainty posture,’ followers felt they should bottle-up their uncertainty until they could present a well-polished, more certain plan.” So, humble leadership leads to more creative solutions as people feel more empowered to explore imperfect and partially formed ideas.

Humble leaders are less focused on their leadership capabilities and are “more focused on how followers influence the process of leadership.” They perceive leadership as a network of influences that permeates the organization and moves it toward success. This is becoming evermore important in today’s more dynamic, uncertain and unpredictable environment where it becomes increasingly difficult for one leader to direct from the top down.

Finally, Owens and Hekman summarize their findings in three behaviors of a humble leader:

  1. They acknowledge personal limits, faults, and mistakes;
  2. They spotlight followers’ strengths and contributions; and
  3. They model teachability.

Have you had the privilege of working under a humble leader? What behaviors did you observe? How did that behavior affect the health and productivity of the organization?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

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