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Humble Executive Leadership – An Oxymoron?

When you think about the traits of great CEOs and executive leaders, what comes to mind? Perhaps characteristics like driving results, organizational savvy, or championing change do. And not humility. The financial successes of startups and established innovative businesses such as Amazon and Tesla aren't typically attributed to humble leadership. So, maybe CEOs and executive leaders can't be humble and achieve desired results?

Why Humility is Important in Executive Leadership

Humble executive leadership behaviors reduce costs and increase revenue in startups and established businesses. Four independent research studies concluded that executive leadership could explain up to 45% of an organization's performance. Like a stream and its source, an organization only rises as high as its organizational talent. CEOs and executive leaders provide critical strategic and operational leadership.

Across several research studies, humility is a demonstrated lever for sustainable company development, enhancing employee innovation, team empowerment, company performance, and self-improvement. Leadership guru Jim Collins concluded after analyzing 1435 companies over forty years that humility and professional will are the most transformative executive leadership characteristics.

What is Humble Executive Leadership?

Humble leaders recognize and are self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They appreciate others and believe that life is less about themselves and more about the greater good. Humble leaders walk the line between self-confidence and over-confidence. They can be both competitive and ambitious. Humble executive leaders are not weak and indecisive.

In addition to these behaviors, humble executive leadership is linked with the following individual personality traits:

  • Conscientiousness

  • Agreeableness

  • Openness to Experience

Humility is associated with contemporary leadership styles such as servant leadership and authentic leadership.

“Humility does not mean you think less of yourself. It means you think of yourself less.” Ken Blanchard

Narcissism, Humility, and Executive Leadership

Narcissism and humility are often considered to be on opposite ends of a trait continuum. Research has demonstrated that narcissistic employees are likely to emerge as leaders in groups that lack familiarity. This is of particular concern for human resources and hiring managers because studies have identified narcissism as the dominant predictor of behavior such as sabotage, bullying, sexual harassment, and fraud.

Surprisingly, although organizational selection assessments can help identify a narcissistic leader, research has shown that people often perceive them as good leaders. Narcissistic individuals can project an image of effectiveness even though they are viewed as arrogant.

If you are curious in finding out if you have potentially narcissistic tendencies as compared to others, the following link is to a free five-minute survey developed in 2011 by Delroy Paulhus and Daniel Jones strictly for educational and entertainment purposes:

Innovation, Humility, and Executive Leadership

Innovation is increasingly essential for organizations to be competitive in today's dynamic workplace. According to the annual PwC pulse survey of over 5000 CEOs, more than 60% are expecting innovation and M&A deals to fuel organizational growth in the future.

Research studies directly link humble CEOs with enhanced company innovation. The stated communication and the allocation of the CEO's time will influence the successful adoption and implementation of innovation within a company. In one study involving 90 teams, leadership humility was demonstrated to enhance team innovation through cultivating an environment where employees feel safe to speak up about controversial points of view.

A Humble Executive Leadership Encounter

I don't know about you, but I admire leaders that demonstrate humility. Possibly it is because of the apparent paradox when a leader with positional power chooses not to use it. Maybe it's like that line from Aaron Burr's character in Hamilton. I want to be in the room where it happens and feel more valued when leaders listen and ask me about my opinion. Or possibly it is because I admire my father, and he modeled humility to me growing up. Whatever the cause, I have very different feelings when I encounter humility versus narcissistic behavior.

Humility shows up in the workplace in many different ways. When interviewing with the CEO of a large organization, I was asked if I would like a bottle of water. I quickly said yes. At the time of the interview, I was working for an executive leader within a formal organizational culture. When I would meet with my current leader, I would also be asked if I would want something to drink during meetings. The difference was not being asked. The difference was that my current leader would call his admin to get the drinks. The CEO I was interviewing with got up and went to get me the bottle of water himself, even though he had an admin outside of his office. That simple gesture represented such a different culture to me. Also, later in the same interview, I realized the CEO was asking questions to hear how I would respond but not because he needed my insights. The CEO was listening to understand how I would react and interact with others. It was clear to me this executive leader was humble, and others focused.

Executive Leadership Development and Talent Management

Executive leadership development has proven positive consequences for organizations. Like behavior and competency development, humility can be developed and embedded within organizational talent management processes.

  • Executive Leadership Assessment & Coaching: Executive assessments are practical tools for creating self-awareness. Feedback is a gift; however, feedback on character gaps is not commonly provided. Executive assessments give a leader a metaphorical mirror that helps them see where to improve. Executive coaching combined with executive assessments offers deep insights into areas that lead to enhanced potential with attention. According to outcome-based research, a coach's timely and appropriate use of executive assessment leads to improved personal and organizational outcomes.

  • Organizational Culture: Executive leadership development investments will underperform without considering the organizational culture. The one thing that impacts everything in the workplace is culture. Companies that talk about and reinforce the value of self-awareness, appreciation of others, openness to learning, and pursuit of the greater good will shape a culture where humility is expected and communicated. Zappos describes being humble as "we before me." The following video discusses the Zappos culture and its importance to the company.

  • Learning, Reasoning, and Practice: Bringing out the best in executive leaders involves training and development. Helping executive leaders understand appropriate humble leadership behaviors and expectations can help organizations avoid costly mistakes. Executive development on humility is primarily developed through role modeling with intentional time for feedback and reflection.

  • Recruiting and Succession Planning: Situational and behavioral interviews are effective means for identifying humble executive leadership behaviors. Additionally, personality traits such as conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience can be measured through executive assessments and help inform selection and succession decisions. A tool being used by many top-performing companies to measure executive leadership as a part of succession planning is the value and promotability matrix or nine-box grid (see Figure 1). Including humility as a value in the formal review can help organizations get the right leaders in the right seats at the right time.

Key Points:
  • CEOs, executive leaders, and business owners play critical roles in an organization's success.

  • Humility is a lever for sustainable company development, enhancing employee innovation, team empowerment, company performance, and self-improvement.

  • Humble executive leadership is not about being weak and indecisive.

  • Narcissism and humility are often considered to be on opposite ends of a trait continuum.

  • Humility cultivates an environment where employees feel safe to speak up about controversial points of view.

  • Like behavior and competency development, humility can be developed and embedded within organizational talent management processes.

If you have executive leadership coaching or organizational consulting needs you cannot solve independently, we're ready to partner with you to craft a solution specific to your organization's context and challenges. Getting started is as easy as visiting or contacting us via email Organizational Talent Consulting utilizes proven, simple, and transformational personal and organizational development solutions to help our clients learn, change, and apply tools in ways that benefit their unique needs and organizational culture.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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