Develop and promote your humble leaders

Want a high performing organization? Identify those leaders in your organization who are humble. Develop them. And promote them.

Scientific research on leadership shows us what qualities effective leaders possess. It shows us what sort of individuals have leadership potential. It shows us what individuals are likely to derail as leaders. Scientific research on leadership can and, I believe, should be a guiding force in our work to create effective organizations. If applied correctly, those research findings will save your organization a lot of wasted time trying to develop people who are not fit to lead.

Two types of leaders: formal and informal

Your have general classes of leaders in your organization. One class is the formally appointed leader. This leader has a wide span of influence and holds a director or executive-level titles (e.g., CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, Deputy, or President) in your organization. Another class is the informal leader. This type of leader doesn’t (yet) have a formal leadership title but has a track record for effectively pulling people together to achieve goals that line up with the organization’s strategy. Regardless of what category your leader or potential leader might fall in, here are some criteria to help you identify them. In both classes of leaders, there are those with the potential to lead major improvements to your organization. Both types are important. You should try to identify both types of leaders in your organization.

Look for a combination of humility and professional will

Many of you know of Jim Collins, who studied companies that transformed themselves from good to great. Through careful study, he found an advanced type of leader who, in all the “good to great” companies, had led this major transformation across the organization. These “Level 5” leaders had two qualities: humility and professional will. Collins has extensive data to back up this finding. It explains why some people at work can lead so well and get so much accomplished with others, while other individuals at work meet so much resistance. Let’s take a minute to unpack these two qualities.

Humility is the state of being humble; “humble” is defined by Merriam Webster’s dictionary as “not proud or haughty; not arrogant”. Let’s look at arrogance closely. An arrogant person exaggerates their own abilities while disparaging others. What you find in arrogant people is a sense of entitlement and superiority. But a sense of entitlement and superiority alone does not make someone arrogant. It is the sense of superiority coupled with putting others down–this is arrogance.

Researchers have studied workplace arrogance using quantitative data: personality measures (the Workplace Arrogance Scales) and job performance data, for example. The researchers found something many of us have observed and concluded from direct contact with very arrogant individuals at work:

“High levels of arrogance are associated with low self-esteem, low general intelligence, poor job performance, and low organizational citizenship behaviors. This suggests that arrogant individuals are not (and do not believe themselves to be) actually superior, but rather use arrogance as a way to mask inadequacies.” (Credit: “Arrogance: A Formula for Failure” by Silverman, Johnson, McConnell, and Carr)

We have hard data showing that high levels of arrogance are related to poor job performance and low general intelligence. Simply put, arrogance is a sign of someone not fit to lead.

Someone fit to lead at an advanced level is, in contrast, humble. And the qualities you find in a humble person include many specific qualities and visible behaviors not seen in arrogant people. Here are some visible indicators of humility at work:

  • seeking feedback from others
  • accurately communicates his/her own strengths and weaknesses
  • regularly giving credit to others
  • avoiding excessive praise and adulation
  • striving for personal and professional improvement

Professional will is ambition directed not for personal gain but for the betterment, the transformation and the responsible stewardship of the institution. You can spot this by looking at the results they have produced, which all revolve around the betterment of the institution rather than being self-serving to the leader. This quality is a bit easier to identify because you can study the person’s track record of accomplishments. If you interview such a person, the stories they tell will show an interest in responsible stewardship, a strong drive, and a long view. To paraphrase Jim Collins, they care about creating companies and organizations that are built to last, not built to flip.

The science tells us that humble leaders are more effective. Arrogant leaders are less effective. If you find leaders in your organization who have a drive for results and demonstrate self-awareness, effective listening, and humility, you should invest in them. To build a high performing organization, you should develop and promote your humble leaders.