Humble leaders: the new fashion

Dec 03 2012 by Duane Dike Print This Article

I recently came across a great report on leadership titled Modeling How to Grow: An Inductive Examination of Humble Leader Behaviors, Contingencies, and Outcomes (2011, Bradley Owens and David Herman) published in the Academy of Management Journal. The authors compared the characteristics of five leadership types: humble (the style hypothesized to be the most effective), developmental, servant, participative, and shared.

Their conclusion was that while all five leadership types correlate to good things such as learning, developing, influencing, and sharing, only the humble style of leadership was found to be truly outward focused in ways that promote learning cultures.

No Choice: Humility

In a nutshell, humble leaders never assume they know the job better than the people who do the work. As work becomes less linear and increasingly more complicated, leaders have no choice but to be humble in how they approach their accountabilities. If leaders hang onto antiquated knowledge-is-power ideologies, the truth will catch up with them, revealing shortcomings they never knew existed.

We've discussed before that leader behavior (culture) correlates to productivity and quality of workmanship. Leader behavior doesn't determine organizational culture, it IS organizational culture. Humility as behavior is good for business. I'm not suggesting that humble leaders are pushovers Ė far from it. In fact, humble leaders vehemently support the causes of their followers, successfully gathering knowledge through trusting relationships.


Relationships with fellow employees have got to be deeper and more meaningful than those, "Hi, how are you? Have a good weekend?" superficial chats leaders sometimes have. Relationships are the basic core of humble and outward focused leadership. Relationship building is the stuff of perceived organizational support and respect. The trouble with perceptions is they are conceived and not necessarily seeded in reality. Instead of perceived organizational support, I prefer the real kind.

Because organizations are anthropomorphic objects and can't support or respect anything, those supportive qualities have to come from people. And no one represents the vision of an anthropomorphic organization better than its leaders. We are the organization as seen through employee eyes. That's quite a heavy load, really. Everything we as managers do is compared to intended corporate culture. If we fail to personify cultures as friendly, supportive, collaborative, and fun, we fail in our mission to push productivity and quality.

Supportive Cultures: How To

Maybe I'm missing something, but the job of personifying supportive cultures isn't (shouldn't be) all that difficult. We as leaders only need to:

  • Be inspirational in style
  • Care for individuals (the relationship element)
  • Think of our ourselves as problem preventers not problem solvers (although solving is sometimes necessary)
  • Be emotionally sensitive
  • Understand and preach that change is a natural progress
  • Be visible in work areas, talking and exchanging ideas with fellow employees
  • And, possibly most important on the list, create cultures (through behavior) where organizational members are free to learn, experiment, and grow. Leaders can accomplish this amazingly productive feat by highlighting employee strengths and admitting quite frankly we don't know everything, we have weaknesses, and we make mistakes.

Benefits of Humility

The results of this more humble form of leadership are psychological freedom, employee engagement in the thinking parts of the work, and ease of organizing processes and work flow. I know, these may sound like unattainable utopian targets, and they probably are to some degree, but that's the really cool thing about humble leadership and relationships - rapport building is a never-ending yet rewarding process.

Anyone who runs a company or a segment of a company knows that businesses are complex systems, constantly evolving in sometimes indiscernible ways. These progressive moves are accomplished as a result of trusting and caring leader behavior, the basics of humble leadership. Over time, as trust increases between leaders and employees, change acceptance becomes common everyday fodder.

The history of management and leadership styles from WWII to today is quite an interesting journey. Millions of new workers descended on the market immediately after the war. Ex-soldiers as workers expected their leaders to be controlling in leadership style, a manner they were comfortable with. Fast forward to today where leaders are expected to be emotionally sensitive, transformative, and humble. This change is an amazing evolution of thought that has taken place in just 75 years. It's no wonder leader styles popular only a few years ago are on the waning side of fashionability today.

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About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.