“And dressed myself in such humility that I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts.” Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1. Painting of Henry IV, British School, 1620s, Dulwich Picture Gallery
Ideas for Leaders #375

How Humility in the CEO Improves Management Performance

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Key Concept

Humility on the part of a CEO can lead to highly beneficial results in their organization; humble CEOs improve top management team integration, which in turn increases middle managers’ perception of an empowering organizational climate, resulting in better work engagement, commitment, and job performance. Read on to learn more about why this trait is so important for CEOs to develop.

Idea Summary

Unconstrained exercise of power and high self-regard on the part of leaders can have damaging consequences for organizations. Previous research has consistently demonstrated the negative and potentially detrimental effects that these traits on the part of CEOs can have, which has led to the concept of humility being explored more and more in psychology and management.

Associated with virtuous, moral, ethical, participative, empowering, and servant leadership, humility is grounded in a self-view of accepting that something is greater than the self. It manifests in self-awareness, openness to feedback, appreciation of others, low self-focus and self-transcendent pursuit. But how exactly does having a humble CEO impact performance of others in an organization, if at all?

This question was explored in a paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly by researchers including NUS Business School’s Amy Ou, and through two studies, they found an interesting ‘trickle down’ effect of humility:

  • A CEOs’ humility relates positively to their empowering leadership behaviours;
  • These empowering leadership behaviours subsequently relate positively to top management team integration;
  • Top management team integration relates positively to middle manager’s perceptions of an empowering organizational climate; and
  • An empowering organizational climate relates positively to middle managers’ work engagement, affective commitment, and job performance.

These findings alter the common misunderstanding that humble CEOs lack confidence and may not be able to motivate others. Instead, the researchers show that humble CEOs bring a broader perspective of service to organizations that can inspire others too. This is through their willingness to admit their strengths and weaknesses, self-confidence, and appreciation of others’ strengths.

Methodology: Through two studies, the researchers gathered survey data from top-management team members and middle managers in private companies in China. They also interviewed 51 CEOs, in order to gain additional insight into the meaning of ‘humility’ among them, and differences between those with high and low humility.

Business Application

These findings contribute to understanding the multilevel effects of leadership, and suggest that CEOs can be affective across hierarchical levels and affect the attitudes and behaviours of employees at lower levels through humility.

The researchers showed that CEO humility wins acceptance from top and middle managers by appealing to collective interests and downplaying strong ego dominance. Similarly, leaders who lack strong egos are able to reduce status differences and gain trust among managers.

For existing CEOs, the message is clear: by actively striving to ingrain humility into your personality, you can stimulate better integration with your top management teams, and eventually impact the overall organizational climate, leading to better performance from your middle managers too. For executives and HR teams looking to recruit new CEOs, these findings are also relevant: steer away from the typical traits that are usually associated with leaders, such as masculinity, dominance, an authoritarian nature, etc. Look out for candidates that possess traits related to humility, such openness to feedback, acceptance of weaknesses, willingness to learn from others, etc.

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