What Is Rewarded in the Workplace? Being a Humble Leader Is Good for You and for Everyone Around You

4 mins

There is a widespread belief that leader humility benefits followers, teams and organisation...

There is a widespread belief that leader humility benefits followers, teams and organisations but fails to help leaders themselves advance in their own careers. However, a new study has challenged this conventional wisdom by showing that by helping followers grow via informal career mentoring, humble leaders can gain status in the organisation and through that, enhance their ability to be promoted.


study published recently in Human Resource Management (HRM) examined how a leader’s humility enhances the leader’s career success.  According to Elsa Chan, the lead author of the study and a lecturer in organisational behaviour at the University of Sussex Business School in the UK, this topic is becoming increasingly relevant in today's leadership discourse. “Our study addresses a growing interest in understanding the role of humility in leadership, as highlighted by articles like ‘The Best Bosses Are Humble Bosses’ from the Wall Street Journal and ‘If Humility Is So Important, Why Are Leaders So Arrogant?’ from Harvard Business Review”, said Chan.


But what exactly is leader humility? Maw Der Foo, one of the study authors and a professor at the Business School at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, defines a humble leader as someone who shows openness to feedback, acknowledges mistakes, appreciates others’ strengths and contributions, and shows a readiness to learn and grow. 


Although leader humility benefits followers, teams and organisations, the widespread belief in both research and practice is that humility fails to help leaders themselves advance in their own careers. Based on multisource data from superiors, bosses, peers and subordinates of over six hundred leaders who participated in a leader development programme in a variety of organisations in eighteen different industries, the study, however, confronts this conventional wisdom that humility hinders career advancement, and that aggression and dominance are the only path to get to the top. 


“We counter the perception that only non-humble leaders can gain career success. So, contrary to the notion that to get ahead in your career, you’ve got to have some sharp elbows, have some aggression, self-promotion, be competitive, undermine others and be dominant, our findings reveal that humility is a genuine asset for career advancement. Our study illustrates that humility, far from being a barrier, is actually a catalyst for leadership success”, said David Hekman, one of the study authors and an associate professor at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business in the USA.


Humble leaders naturally tend to engage in informal mentoring behaviours that serve to boost mentees’ careers, because humble leaders tend to support their followers’ personal and career growth. The study argued - and demonstrated - that it is through this informal mentoring that humble leaders can gain status and ultimately secure a position of power within organisations and ascend in their careers.


“We found that humble leaders often engage in informal career mentoring. Through their commitment to mentoring and fostering the talent of the people around them, they can build a supportive and high performing network of loyal, skilled followers that propels them forward in their careers. This, in turn, boosts their perceived status. The elevated status the leader gains from mentoring people around them then gets attention from senior management, who value the positive impact of humble leadership and then promote the humble leader. There is a chain reaction where humble leaders engage in more mentoring, which in turn leads to higher status and then greater career advancement”, said Hekman.


The study findings thus demonstrate that humble leaders can indeed rise and wield influence within organisations, particularly by engaging in informal mentoring. This, according to Hekman, prompts a re-evaluation of the role humility plays in leadership and its recognition in human resource management practices. 


In addition, Chan and Foo point to a number of practical implications of the study, including those related to performance evaluation, succession planning, leadership training, organisational culture, learning and growth. 


“Encouraging humility and mentoring in leadership can transform organisations into learning-centric entities. This can help the whole organisation continually adapt and evolve like a learning organisation. Our findings also point to the importance of leadership training programmes that emphasise humility and highlight how such traits can contribute to career success and organisational growth”, said Chan.


“Humility should be considered a valuable behaviour in performance evaluations. Humble leaders display very specific behaviours that can be captured in a performance evaluation. Also, when it comes to succession planning and talent development, we can actively look for leaders who are humble. These people would be excellent leaders because they contribute to a positive organisational culture by serving as effective mentors. So, it's really a win-win situation - the organisation benefits by getting leaders who are able to help others, mentor others, set a positive organisational culture, yet these leaders also gain power and gain status in the organisation”, said Foo. 


Contact David Hekman at david.hekman@colorado.edu


Read the full article here.


Written by Jelena Petrovic, Knowledge Transfer Editor of HRM and Associate Professor at the University of Southampton Business School, j.petrovic@soton.ac.uk


HRM is a Financial Times Top 50 Business Journal published by Wiley.