Is There a Shadow Side to Humble Leadership?

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Simon Bird

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Humble leadership – it used to be very on trend. 

I first came across it when it seemed like everyone was reading ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins.  So, you may have heard of it too – and it’s been on my radar again recently.  

Mostly – because of the absolute lack of it in our mainstream political leaders and some musings around leadership role modelling in these very exposed and public roles.

 But what does it mean, and is there a dark side to it?   Broadly it’s a leadership approach that encourages and even embodies curiosity, openness, and honesty.  Humble leaders are those willing to admit when they make mistakes, or even struggle to overcome challenges.  

 Is it a sustainable approach today?  

 I was intrigued by a research study from 2021 which suggested some apparently humble leaders may actually participate in dishonest and potentially corrupt behaviour, believing others owe them for the good behaviour they’ve displayed as leaders. While this may be the case for a small percentage of individuals, it’s not a general consensus for those who choose to take this approach to leadership. So, is it problematic? Not as such – but it does have an impact on those using it in the longer term.

Is It Bad to Be a Humble Leader?  Probably not….

 Despite the initial findings in that research study from 2021, a 2022 review of the research literature on humble leadership suggests there’s no reason to believe that humble leadership is a poor approach to leadership.  In most instances, it leads to promising results, boosting morale within the workplace while helping guide employees in the right direction.  Other studies show that an increase in humble leadership-style behaviours can bring about positive change amongst employees, positive attitudes and performance, which leads to better results for the organisation as a whole.

It’s a leadership style that helps employees feel valued in role and able to collaborate more efficiently and support one another. When leaders take a humble approach and aren’t afraid to admit to their faults, their behaviour can make a significant difference within the workplace, improving productivity rates to help the organization get more done in less time.

However….it can take a toll

 Although a boost in productivity rates should be a compelling reason for any leader to turn up the focus on a more humble approach to leadership, the research suggests it’s not the only benefit available.  It’s also a useful way to support innovation, creativity, and collaboration. In addition, the effort made by these leaders willing to listen, have empathy, and admit to mistakes can help reduce employee turnover rates, leading to greater retention while improving overall outcomes for everyone involved.

So, what of this dark side? 

Rather than the more Machiavellian angle alluded to earlier, it is more about the impact it can have on the leader themselves. These include the potential to develop emotional exhaustion due to difficulty setting personal boundaries and slower career advancement when others take a leader’s humility the wrong way, seeing it as a sign of weakness and low self-esteem. 

 However, those who believe in the power of humility and how it can help them foster a more inclusive, accepting, and understanding environment within the workplace can benefit tremendously from taking a stand, prioritising humility, and maintaining a positive attitude. 

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