Humility is not a trait often associated with leadership. As convention would have us believe, humble people are thought to be weak, timid and meek. Leaders, in comparison, are considered strong, charismatic and confident. However, through the power of humility, leaders can become a motivating force for employees and help them feel purposeful. This can lead to outstanding business outcomes. Here are four reasons why humility is a powerful trait for leaders:

The influence of humility 

Leaders who reject the top-down approach – the old stick and authority – are able to foster greater collaboration and cooperation within the workforce. According to a study published by the Journal of Management, humility inspires trust, loyalty and productive teamwork. The findings also show that humility has important implications for an organisation’s processes and outcomes.

Humble leaders find strength in humility by attracting the best people for the job and by empowering their team to meet organisational goals. They make the time to find out about the individual needs of employees and focus on their strengths and weaknesses – this enables them to get the best out of their team. By showing an appreciation of others, actively seeking input, welcoming feedback, and encouraging their team to take initiative, humble leaders cultivate an environment of innovation, shared achievement and transparency. Through this approach, they are able to inspire the workforce to follow their vision – leading to better performance results and effective commitment. 

Humility in action

Leaders who practice humility don’t see themselves as the centre of the universe. Rather than focussing on personal ambition and accolades, they pay attention to serving others and achieving great results for their organisation. They use any credit for the good of their team and any criticism for their own growth and development. By role-modelling, this characteristic, leaders are able to build a community of collective humility, and shape the company culture and values to reflect this ethos.   

Humble leaders leave their egos at the office front door and are willing to roll up their sleeves alongside their team to get the job done. For instance, the co-founder and chairman emeritus of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, has admitted to spending days loading baggage. He told Fortune magazine that “Power should be reserved for weightlifting and boats, and leadership really involves responsibility.” Similarly, Entrepreneur magazine quotes IKeva co-founder, Monika Misra who states that when you start a company you wear many hats. She warns, “when you grow as a company, remember to not look down upon those roles.”   

Demonstrating humility also means leaders are happy to admit when they have blind spots or when they make wrong decisions. They also need to be comfortable acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers to fix organisational challenges. Humble leaders understand that by asking team members for their insights and by encouraging diversity of thinking, they are able to generate better ideas and solutions to help solve issues. This drives desirable strategic outcomes and enables transformation. According to Deloitte Insights, diversity of thinking is the new frontier – enabling groups to spot risks, creating buy-in, becoming a source of creativity and enhancing innovation by around 20 per cent. For instance, Ed Catmull from Pixar talks about the benefits of assembling a brain trust where the entire production group are invited to challenge the thinking of directors – which he says creates a hotbed of creativity.      

The value of humility

Humble leadership is good for business. When leaders exercise humility and focus on growth, they are able to honestly assess the success of their endeavours. Through such self-reflection, humble leaders are able to avoid costly mistakes and take steps towards increasing the bottom line.  

Business needs and trends can, at times, shift unexpectedly, and leaders don’t always have a clairvoyant’s ability to see into the future. Humility allows leaders to re-group and re-assess, learn from their mistakes or miscalculations, and ride the ebbs and flows of the sometimes-chaotic business world. In this regard, humility becomes a competitive advantage for leaders. For example, American business magnate Warren Buffett, who is considered one the greatest investors of all time, and has been dubbed ‘The Oracle of Omaha,’ – yet he has admitted in the past that even the most successful investors are suspectable to market challenges. He’s called the decision to spend $2 billion to purchase bond issues of Energy Future Holdings a “big mistake.” 

However, the power of humility in leadership extends beyond just the financial return on investment. What drives the dollars and cents further is employee engagement. The story of Jungkiu Choi, the Head of Consumer Banking at Standard Chartered in China illustrates this point. By simply introducing work “huddles” and giving employees a voice, customer satisfaction at that company increased by 54 per cent during a two-year period.    

value of humility

The absence of humility 

The Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney has written about ‘Reflections on Leadership in a Disruptive Age’ and in that he states that, “Good leaders combine personal humility, self-knowledge and the ability to learn.” He adds, “When leaders become overconfident (or turn to writing books), they stop learning.” Humility, in essence, is about being on a continuous journey of learning and looking for ways to improve your performance. Humble leaders are curious and ask questions – they look at what’s worked, what hasn’t and why. Overall, they have a focus on advancing their organisation, rather themselves.” 

The opposite of humility is hubris. When leaders have excessive self-confidence and make rash decisions, this can have detrimental consequences for their organisation. The absence of humility in a leader can have a direct impact on the work environment and culture. There’s overwhelming evidence that shows lacking basic civility is a silent killer of workplace happiness, productivity, and health. In fact, 40 per cent of employees admit to intentionally decreasing their work effort when they are subjected to workplace incivility.  

The cost of bad leadership is estimated to be a whopping $144,000 per day. Yet, according to Matthew Hayward, author of Ego Check: Why Executive Hubris is Wrecking Companies and Careers and How to Avoid the Trap, “The danger is that as we become more successful, we become ever more vulnerable to hubris.” When leaders abandon humility and turn to arrogance there can be a high price to pay. The fall of technology giant Motorola is just one such example of how the mighty can fail.   

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