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Managerial Humility

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nathan Favero 
November 23, 2019

What are the characteristics of a good leader?

Humility probably isn’t the first word you think to associate with effective leadership. Perhaps this is partly due to contemporary Western society not generally placing a lot of value on humility as a potential virtue.

I would argue, however, that humility (of a certain kind) is a key ingredient to good leadership.

What do I mean by humility? One simple definition of humility is thinking of others more highly than oneself. Humble people care about the well-being of others. Humble people don’t think they’re smarter than everyone else. Humble people don’t have big egos, so they don’t feel threatened when someone suggests that they might be wrong.

Management scholars don’t talk a lot about humility. But they do talk about some of its opposites. For example, the textbook I’m using to teach a course on management of public organizations this semester warns of the dangers of autocratic, abusive and narcissistic managers.

Autocratic or abusive leaders don’t appear to care about their followers, and their followers tend to live in fear of them. This often produces an unhealthy work environment that hinders organizational effectiveness. The high regard for others demonstrated by a humble leader cuts against the types of autocratic or abusive behavior that many of us have witnessed in the workplace at one time or another.

Meanwhile, narcissistic managers surround themselves with people who will tell them that they are always right. This entourage feeds these leaders’ unwillingness to consider the possibility that they may be wrong. We know from decisionmaking studies that many bad decisions are caused by a narrow perspective that underestimates the full range of possibilities. The solution is to bring in various perspectives and to acknowledge the high degree of uncertainty we often have. Leaders need to learn to replace false self-confidence with some humility.

In short, the label humility puts a name to some of the very behaviors that management scholars recommend that leaders avoid.

Management scholars also frequently talk about establishing trust. And they’ve found that demonstrating a concern for the well-being of others (along with competence and honesty) is key to building trust with others. So again, humility seems to describe what we want in a manager.

Despite the potential benefits of managerial humility, there are also some predictors of managerial success that we typically don’t associate with humility.

The first is a type of self-confidence. People typically perform better in their jobs when they have a strong sense that they are capable of success. Scholars call this type of self-confidence self-efficacy and it is an important predictor of successful leadership.

At first blush, it might seem like humility is the opposite of self-confidence. But notice the difference between self-efficacy and the type of self-confidence exhibited by the narcissistic leader. The narcissistic manager is convinced that they can do no wrong—that that they know better than everyone else. The manager with self-efficacy believes that they are capable of success. The manager with both self-efficacy and humility believes they are capable while still recognizing that they won’t always get it right or that they can’t figure it all out on their own.

Another helpful leadership quality is a sense of moral conviction. By appealing to moral virtues and other cherished principles, leaders can help to motivate their employees. Scholars focused on the public and nonprofit sectors in particular often emphasize the importance of employees’ intrinsic motivations to serve the public. Thus, manager should work to help employees clearly see the positive impact their work has on their society.

This sort of forceful conviction may again appear at odds with humility. But that is because we sometimes confuse being humble with being timid. Think of Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr or Clara Barton. Humility does not seek out the spotlight for personal gain, but that does not mean that it shies away from inviting others to join in a mission of service to others. A manager can display firm conviction about the goodness of an organization’s mission while also recognizing their personal need for others to help them figure out how to best pursue the organization’s goals.

Some of us might benefit from expanding our notion of what a successful leader looks like. Leaders don’t have to be confident in a cocky or self-righteous way to be effective. In fact, a certain type of humility can be a great leadership asset.

Author: Nathan Favero (nathanfavero.com) is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. His research focuses on topic related to public management, education policy, social equity, and research methods. Twitter: @favero_nate

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