The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is that of humility: humility is endless.
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) in Four Quartets (1943)
Humility is not living its best times among organisational leaders. Although it has been an integral concept throughout the history of thought, we talk, discuss and work little on humility, as if incorporating it into the capabilities of a good leader would lower our status, and discussing it would make us waste our time.
In addition, its definition is sometimes diffuse, unclear, intermingled with other concepts such as modesty, simplicity or good-naturedness.
Far from it, humility has a precise definition, as do those other words. Dictionaries define it as the virtue of knowing one’s own limitations and weaknesses and acting in accordance with this knowledge. Therefore, humility is an internal exercise of deep self-knowledge that allows us to act more effectively, as opposed to modesty, which is the way we present ourselves to others. One is the way we see ourselves, and the other is the way we present ourselves. They’re often linked, but not necessarily.
Introducing humility in organisations
Humility is, at its core, a self-regulatory capacity, since having this faculty allows us to have good self-knowledge, and knowing ourselves well allows us to act accordingly, making the most of our skills and talents. According to the American psychologist Roy Baumeister, humility allows a threefold understanding of oneself in relation to the world (reflective awareness), in relation to others (interpersonal being), and in relation to what one does and performs (executive function).
Humility brings us out of ourselves, and makes us realise and accept that there’s something greater than ourselves. In fact, humility is the antonym of narcissism, the over-consideration and complacency of the self. A narcissism that seems to fill social networks, where the culture of the self seems to be more present than ever.
Therefore, humility is always an interesting and enriching exercise since knowledge of one’s own strengths and limitations (and acting in accordance with this knowledge) becomes, as we will see below, a competitive advantage for individuals, leaders and organisations, as well as the antidote to the disease of our time according to Lowen.
Humility has been studied systematically and rigorously in organisations over the last decade. Among its great scholars we find professors Amy Ou and Bradley Owens, whose two studies on the relevance of humility in organisations have been published in two prestigious journals: Administrative Science Quarterly and Academy of Management Journal, respectively.
Humility, among the skills of a good leader
In Professor Ou and her team’s study, 328 senior and 645 middle managers from 63 companies were surveyed, along with in-depth interviews with 51 CEOs in order to understand the effects of humble leadership (Ouet al., 2014). The hypotheses from which the team started was that a humble leader, again one who is aware of his or her capabilities and limitations as a good leader and acts accordingly, is oriented towards a greater good and a less glorious vision of him or herself, being a clear invitation to foster the capabilities of others, and thus their empowerment.
As the authors of the study were able to demonstrate, this climate of empowerment explained by humble leadership was a stimulus for team autonomy and motivation, which was shown to have an ultimate impact on team performance. The results of the complex study revealed that when there’s a humble leader, the leader tends to treat team members as equals, providing autonomy and including their voices in decision-making.
This climate changed attitudes, especially among middle managers, who felt more “required” and “needed” than in organisations without humble leaders, and this feeling of being required, needed, increased their confidence, their dedication, and consequently, their performance and productivity.
Owens’ study started from a similar premise (Owens and Hekman, 2016). Leadership is the factor that most explains team performance. Therefore, if there is a humble leader, aware of his or her own limitations and strengths, as well as those of the team members, he or she has a grasp of reality that will allow him or her to know where and how to grow, and therefore, how to be more productive.
To test their hypothesis, the authors examined data from 607 subjects from 161 teams. According to their results, humble leadership ends up having an impact on organisational productivity and this is explained in three steps. Step one, leader humility is contagious and can be transformed into collective humility. In other words, a humble leader can in a way export his or her humility to team members, who in turn become more aware of the limitations and strengths of the team, as well as of each of its members, encouraging openness to others. This step is already an interesting discovery, as we move from codifying humility as an individual trait to a collective trait. We can be a humble organisation.
The second occurs when collective humility is transformed into a collective promotion focus. Being aware of one’s own limitations and strengths as a team invites each member to work to achieve the team’s maximum potential. The focus is no longer so much on the individual, but on the group, putting the team’s interests before one’s own.
In other words, humble teams become open teams with a greater capacity for learning. Ultimately, it’s this openness and learning capacity that crystallises in higher productivity. Therefore, humility, even if it’s not fashionable, has a reward for leaders and their organisations.
How to promote humility among good leaders
However, the big challenge is how to foster humble leaders. Here are some possible ideas suggested by experts:
- Hiring humility. This is the big challenge for HR departments. Looking for humble leaders, who may be modest at the same time, makes it difficult to find them. It’s hence imperative to look for alternatives to detect and identify humble leaders, who may be modest at the same time, and have less chance of getting a position, as they’re more hesitant to make their strengths explicit. A major challenge, therefore, is how to detect humble leaders and their strengths.
- Modify language. Leaders by their very organisational nature can easily speak in the first person (I, me, my, my team). It’s necessary to foster a culture of first-person plural (we, us, our team).
- Developing an accurate awareness. The first part of the definition of humility is to know our weaknesses and strengths accurately, so that we can act accordingly (part two). There are very interesting exercises for self-awareness, or team awareness. Fostering this clear awareness of who we are, with our limitations, will allow us to do the second part of the definition, to act accordingly. To work on the basis of who we are.
If you want to learn more about how to be a good leader, click here.
Ou, A. Y., Tsui, A. S., Kinicki, A. J., Waldman, D. A., Xiao, Z. and Song, L. J. (2014) “Humble Chief Executive Officers’ Connections to Top Management Team Integration and Middle Managers’ Responses”, Administrative Science Quarterly, 59(1), pp. 34–72. doi:10.1177/0001839213520131.
Owens, B. P. and Hekman, D. R. (2016) “How does leader humility influence team performance? Exploring the mechanisms of contagion and collective promotion focus”, Academy of Management Journal, 59(3), pp. 1088–1111. doi:10.5465/amj.2013.0660.