Humility, the great antithesis to ego, might be considered an attribute that subtracts from the elan of leadership. But more and more research is showing the complexity of this trait and how those who espouse it are, in fact, some of the best leaders.
A 2021 study suggested that humility can be a positive trait for leaders, with implications for organizational strategy and performance. The study found that humble executives build integrative teams, promote pay equity among their teams, and establish profitable companies.
Jonathan Finkelstein, CEO and founder of New York City-based Credly, a business of Pearson, says "servant leadership is on the rise, for good reason. Those who lead with humility are great listeners, are committed to the growth and success of others, and are empathetic—not only to their teams but to the needs of their customers."
What does humility look like in a workplace setting? First, it involves a willingness to know oneself. Humble individuals are aware of human limitations and accept that they have both strengths and weaknesses. Some terms that researchers have used to describe this orientation are "a transcendent self-concept and low self-focus and a lack of superiority or entitlement." Exhibiting humility as a leader often involves being vulnerable in front of others. For some, this comes naturally; others have to work at it.
The second aspect of humility is keeping an open mind and continuously learning and improving. Humble leaders are open to new information, and they are willing to take contradictory advice or even criticism.
"Doing your job as a leader at any level within an organization means having the humility to surround yourself with people smarter and more capable than yourself, and then listening to what they need and removing obstacles in their way," Finkelstein says. "It also means continuing to invest in their growth and development so they can serve the organization even better in the future."
Asking for help is a sign of a secure leader—one who engages everyone to reach goals. Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based open-source software maker Red Hat, says, "I found that being very open about the things I did not know actually had the opposite effect than I would have thought. It helped me build credibility."
Asking for help is effective because it taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others.
"As a leader, others look to me for answers," Finkelstein says. "By acknowledging that I don't always have them, and that the best answers often come from the members of the team, I try to create a culture that empowers others to contribute their views without fear of personal judgment."
Toni Tileva, Ph.D. is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.