When you think of the classic leadership archetype we think of confident, forward, bold, forthright, outgoing, vocal, and even, perhaps, a touch of arrogance. Many of us are innately programmed to favor this kind of forthright leadership style when choosing leaders for our businesses, without questioning whether this is the right style of leadership. It’s no surprise really, because usually when you hire a leader, there’s something serious at stake and we can often be more reassured by confidence and lofty promises than perhaps conservatism and circumspection. We generally prefer Jim Kirk to Mahatma Gandhi in a crisis situation is what I am saying.
But, some recent research has come to my attention which suggests that our natural hiring instincts may not be as sound as we think and we should perhaps give more weight and credence to the trait of humility and be more resistant to the seductive allure of forthrightness and outward confidence.
A study by the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business has found that humble people make the most effective leaders. In their study, employees rated their supervisor on humility and also responded to questions about their own engagement and satisfaction. Here they found that the managers who were rated as more humble had subordinates who reported feeling more engaged and less likely to leave. They concluded that a quieter leadership approach, based on listening, transparency, being aware of limitations, and valuing follower’s strengths and contributions is also an effective way of engaging staff. Now, they weren’t dismissing the larger than life, populist leadership characters often depicted in the media, but were just saying that this is not the only way to lead and the quieter, less populist style of leadership can be more effective.
This is not an isolated finding or line of thinking as Jim Collins has shown in his leadership piece reported in the Harvard Business Review. He looked into the success of the mild mannered, humble CEO of Kimberley Clark, Darwin E. Smith, who transformed this business from a company whose stock had fallen 36 percent behind the market in 1971 to a firm that, 20 years later, was beating its rivals Scott Paper and P&G. The firm was also generating cumulative stock returns that were four times greater than the general market, outperforming the likes of HP, 3M, Coca-Cola and GE. Jim Collins sees Darwin E. Smith as an example of what they call a Level 5 leader, which is someone who combines extreme personal humility with intense professional will. And based on their five-year research, leaders who possess this rare combination of qualities are able to drive the extremely rare event of transforming a good company to a great company.
So, I think there is good evidence to suggest that recruiters and employers should avoid falling into the trap, which says that leaders need to be brash, outwardly confident and larger than life when research shows that the more humble leadership candidates, (with traits such as self-awareness, perspective taking, openness, being aware of limitations of self and others) also have the tools to be a great leaders.