Guest Column - January/February 2014

Humility Is Key to Effective Leadership & High Performance

By Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP


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, modeling teachability, and showcasing followers' strengths. They viewed these three behaviors as being powerful predictors of leaders' success, as well as the organization's growth.

"Humble leaders foster learning-oriented teams and engage employees. They also optimize job satisfaction and employee retention," said study co-author Michael Johnson. "Humility is an important component of effective leadership in modern organizations."

Two of the best predictors of performance on the job are intelligence and conscientiousness, and humility predicted performance better than both.

The best leaders are the people behind the scenes who guide their employees and let them shine. This quieter leadership approach—listening, being transparent, being aware of limitations and appreciating employees' strengths and contributions—is also a highly effective way to engage employees. The researchers found that such leaders model how to effectively be human (rather than superhuman) and legitimize "becoming" rather than "pretending."

The essence of leader humility also involves modeling to employees how to grow. Although growing and learning often involves failure and can be embarrassing, leaders who can overcome their fears and broadcast their feelings as they work through the messy internal growth process will be viewed more favorably by their followers. They also legitimize their employees' own professional development journeys and will have higher-performing organizations.

Leaders who embrace growth signal to followers that learning, growing, mistakes, uncertainty and false starts are normal and expected in the workplace, and this produces followers and entire organizations that continually develop and improve. This is why leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees and lower voluntary employee turnover.

Cultivating Humility

For organizations that want to cultivate more humility in their leadership ranks, the research suggests shaping a formal leadership development program designed around six basic principles:

1. Know what you don't know: You may excel in many things, but as a leader, you must rely on those who have relevant qualifications and expertise. You need a degree of humility to see where your relative strengths are and where outside resources can help you get the right answers. You have to recognize skills in other people and blend the right team around them. 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 wasn't as flawless. Basking in the glory of a triumph can be energizing, but too big a dose is intoxicating, and 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. You can't fake humility—you either genuinely want to serve and assist or you don't, and others will pick up on this.

5. Listen to the weird ideas: There's ample evidence that 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."