When we think of traits leaders typically exhibit, many come to mind—including strength, charisma, enthusiasm, and vision. One important component is often overlooked: humility.
"For so long, we’ve talked about the power of persuasion and this over-the-top self-confidence in leaders, which is a very top-down style of leadership," says leadership expert Rob Nielsen, coauthor of Leading with Humility.
Research in the January 2014 issue of the Administrative Science Quarterly found that managers who exhibit traits of humility—such as seeking feedback and focusing on the needs of others—resulted in better employee engagement and job performance.
There’s a difference between being a humble leader and being wishy-washy or overly solicitous of others’ opinions, says Arron Grow, associate program director of the School of Applied Leadership at the City University of Seattle and author of How to Not Suck as a Manager.
Being humble doesn’t mean being a chump. Use humility to be more effective in these six ways.
Humble leaders seek input from others to ensure they have all the facts and are making decisions that are in the best interest of the team, Grow says. No one person has all the answers. If you think you do, then it’s probably time to reassess.
People want to work for people who value their opinions rather than ignore or dismiss them. Effectively humble leaders are comfortable asking for input and can just as easily be decisive when the situation calls for it, he adds.
Nielsen says team performance is typically much higher when team members believe their leaders are truly looking out for their best interests. That doesn’t mean hand-holding, but it does mean caring about the environment in which your team is working and ensuring that they have what they need to do a good job.
While intelligence and skill are typically good predictors of team performance, Nielsen says that the quality of humility—especially in a team’s leadership—can be a better performance predictor.
It’s tough to be more transparent and open—even those who consider themselves humble don’t want to look like they’ve messed up. But, as human beings we all make mistakes. When you’re willing to share your own missteps, and how you dealt with and recovered from them, you earn trust from your team, Grow says.
"I don’t mean that people need to be willing to fall on a sword," he adds. "But we should own up to what we do. Sometimes it’s good to share that with others—that we’re not infallible."
Many leaders want to control everything. But some things can’t be known up front or beforehand. You have to know when to take charge—or when to let go and not try to force everything to go your way, he says.
Sometimes, it’s important to admit that you don’t know the best answer, and wait until you have the best information to make a decision or change, Grow says.
Like many leadership skills, humility may not come easy to everyone. That’s why Nielsen says it’s important to engage in self-reflection.
One of the most powerful tools is to write in a journal. By chronicling what went well during your interactions or what you could have handled better, you can enhance your perspective and learn from your actions, Nielsen says. There’s almost always room for improvement.
Micromanaging kills morale—and it isn’t very humble. Choose good people, train them, then "get out of the way and let them do their jobs," Grow says. It can take humility to admit that your way isn’t the only way or even that some people are better at certain roles than you. The humble leader accepts these truths and allow other’s strengths to work for the good of the team or organization without interference, he says.
"When people are demonstrating these behaviors—self-awareness, perspective, openness to feedback and ideas, and appreciation of others—employees are saying: ‘Yes I’m happier in my job; I actually can perform at a higher level,’" Nielsen says. "There is an association between the humble leadership behaviors and those outcomes."