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On Being a Leader: The Pros and Cons of Humility

On Being a Leader: The Pros and Cons of Humility

When it comes to leadership, which is a better practice: humility or ego? Do we use our ego to propel us forward and inspire others to action, or do we practice humility and work within a team to succeed?

Written by:Tara A. Collison, Ph.D.

Some of the world’s most celebrated leaders – familiar names like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs – are recognized by their unwavering opinions, extreme confidence, and magnetism. In many ways, their egos propel them forward. Ancient Greeks considered this kind of charisma to be a “divine gift” – one’s special ability to inspire others to action and devotion.

Some might say these leaders lack humility, which by definition is a low view of one’s own importance. However, a better description might come from author Rick Warren who says, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” It’s not so much a lack of confidence as it is a lack of ego.

Though they might not be the first names that come to mind, there are plenty of leaders who are both humble and successful. This group includes people like former President of Ford Motor Company, Alan Mulally, and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, who advises leaders to “leave your crown in the garage.” Perhaps as the exception to the “less recognized” rule, we also have chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett. These men and women operate under the belief that ego leads to low productivity and high turnover.

Larger-than-life leaders like Musk and Branson have historically, or at least publicly found recognition, but perhaps our humble leaders choose to fly below the radar on purpose. So which is a better practice – humility or ego? Should you strive to capture the attention of the world or work amongst your team for what you perceive to be the greater good?

Let’s break down the pros and cons of humility.

Is Your Humility a Strength?
Dr. Robert Hogan, founder and president of Hogan Assessments, believes humility to be the psychological opposite of narcissism. Of humble leaders, he says: “They listen to feedback and are willing to acknowledge mistakes and they will change direction if a decision turns out to be wrong. This last point is crucial because 50% of all business decisions are wrong.”

It’s a bold statement: “50% of all business decisions are wrong.” Whether that number is exact, anyone in business knows that mistakes and misunderstandings are, at times, inevitable. So, is it ignorant to believe that one person has all the answers? By harnessing the power of the team – each person expressing their own thoughts and opinions – you improve your odds of success. This is why a humble leader knows they need to work with their people.

Humble leaders also know they must work for their people. This is called servant leadership. While some may interpret it as having low self-esteem, this attitude signifies that a leader values their team. A recent study says that 105 IT companies found that “greater humility in their CEOs was associated with greater leadership team integration; greater collaboration and cooperation and greater flexibility in strategic orientation.”

Pros of Humility

  • Humility promotes an open mindset where everyone’s ideas and opinions are valued.
  • Your teams will feel more empowered and ultimately perform at a higher level.
  • Your teams will trust you if you make decisions based on what’s best for the entire business.
  • You’ll learn more because you listen more. Asking for feedback helps you grow.
  • Your mistakes can become teachable moments. In this way, you legitimize the growth and learning of your teams and your business.

Is Your Ego a Strength?
study published by the Journal of Applied Psychology found that a humble leader is better suited for some teams than others. If your team expects and approves of an unequal power distribution, they may respond better to a large ego in charge. When the power distance is high, these teams expect their leader to be dominant and unyielding. In the reverse, when the power distance is low, they may expect more humility.

Teams with a high power distance from their leader associate humility with lower levels of psychological safety. If you don’t display a powerful ego, they may feel unsafe speaking up, participating in a debate, or taking risks. One study also found that CEO’s with large egos, “favor bold actions that attract attention, resulting in big wins or big losses.”

Depending on the team’s expectations, humility may be interpreted as weakness, indecisiveness, or lack of confidence. In some circumstances, it may even be a sign of Imposter Syndrome. Harvard Business Review calls Imposter Syndrome, “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” These so-called “imposters” suffer from chronic self-doubt and fraud that overpowers any feeling of success or competence.

Cons of Humility

  • You may miss out on the kinds of stimulating debates that lead to revolutionary ideas. These debates start when someone refuses to water down their ideas and fights to prove their worth.
  • You may miss out on a high-risk, high-reward situation.
  • You may potentially lose the trust and confidence of your team. In turn, they stop feeling “safe” with you as their leader.
  • You may appear indecisive or weak, depending on the expectations of your teams.

Another con of humility is its potential to be false. Pay attention to any leader’s level of sincerity. False humility often presents in leaders who love to discuss how humble they are but rarely follow-through.

Call Meddlers Today!
At Meddlers, we rarely find black and white answers to already complicated questions. Is humility in a leader a strength or a weakness? In this case, we believe the answer is “it depends.” Ultimately, we propose you lean toward humility as the best policy, but recognize there are caveats. Your job is to pay close attention to your team and their values and implement a style of leadership that finds the sweet spot between ego and humility.

As always, we recommend you put your people first. Call Meddlers at 602-842-5272 to discuss team engagement and leadership coaching!

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