Humble Leadership

LeadershipHumility is hard to talk about, and harder still to embody.

Most people don’t quit a job; most people quit their boss.

Humble leaders are needed as much and perhaps more now than ever.

Humility & Effectiveness

In a recent Harvard Business Review article Margarita Mayo, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IE Business School in Madrid, noted that humble leaders are more effective leaders.  She writes

Humble leaders improve the performance of a company in the long run because they create more collaborative environments. They have a balanced view of themselves – both their virtues and shortcomings – and a strong appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, while being open to new ideas and feedback. These “unsung heroes” help their believers to build their self-esteem, go beyond their expectations, and create a community that channels individual efforts into an organized group that works for the good of the collective.


She supported this claim by mentioning research studies including

  • Study 1: humble CEOs were correlated with more collaborative management teams that were more likely to share information
  • Study 2: humility is contagious – workers reporting to humble leaders were more likely to adopt humble habits themselves such as admitting personal mistakes and limitations, and sharing success by deflecting praise from self to share it with the group

Humility & Service

There are many ways to explain humble leadership and countless examples of this type of leadership.  Personally, I have been influenced by Robert K. Greenleaf’s extensive work around what he calls “servant leadership.” In short,

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Humility & Jesus

Since this is a blog by a self-proclaimed follower of the Way of Jesus about matters of faith that matter it seems appropriate to reference the example of Jesus.  Philippians 2 includes a passage often called the Christ Hymn that encourages those who follow the Way of Jesus to follow Jesus’ example of leading with humility.  The Message – a contemporary paraphrase – renders verses 3-8 in this way:

Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.

So What?

The decision to become a humble leader is personal.

The path to achieving this status is one with many milestones but with no final destination.

Whether you prefer to call it humble leadership, servant leadership, or imitating the example of Jesus, I trust that you recognize it is an effective, energizing, and essential attribute.  And, I hope you choose to cultivate humility in your own life and in the lives of those you influence.

  • How would you define “humble leadership”?
  • Give one example of a boss you worked for who was anything but humble.  Did that person’s leadership change your view of good leadership? If so, how?
  • Give one example of a boss you worked for who was a truly humble leader (if you have not had such an experience ask around until you meet someone who has and then encourage them to share as much of that story as they are comfortable relating).

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