Immanuel Kant by unknown artist (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #728

Leadership Humility Is Contagious — Resulting in High Performance

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Key Concept

Leadership humility is contagious, resulting in a collective humility that focuses the leader’s group or organization around achieving high team performance.

Idea Summary

New research demonstrates how leadership humility positively influences the performance of a group or organization. Specifically, the research, based on two laboratory studies and one field study, shows that leadership humility leads to collective humility on the part of the group he or she is leading, which in turn leads to a group focus on achieving team results rather than individual results. 

As detailed by the researchers in their Academy of Management Journal article, a leader models behaviour that is noticed by his or her followers. They will observe that a humble leader has positional power but is willing to give away some of that power by admitting mistakes, by acknowledging his or her limitations, by acknowledging the strengths of others, and by willing to be taught rather than always teaching others. 

A leader’s followers will begin to emulate the leader’s humble behaviour. They also become willing to admit mistakes, to acknowledge their limitations and the strengths of others, to be open to others’ ideas and feedback. The leader’s humility becomes contagious, with the group as a whole becoming collectively humble.

This collective humility is potent. The individuals in the group feed off of each other’s behaviours. Because others are willing to acknowledge their limitations and mistakes, they are willing to acknowledge theirs. In the group, it becomes easier for everyone to learn from each other and to identify the areas where they need to improve. Individuals in the group are not afraid to admit mistakes because they are encouraged to acknowledge and learn from them.

These behaviours and attitudes enable and motivate the members of the group to work together toward common goals and objectives — what the researchers call collective promotion focus. Individuals are not focused on their own success but on the success of the group because they know that their part in any group success will be appreciated and praised. And because of this appreciation, the members of the group want to improve their weaknesses; they aren’t afraid to try new things and perhaps make mistakes from which the group can learn; they are willing to see tasks allocated to the best person who fits the task (even if it is not them); and they are open to feedback and new information — all in the interests of the group’s success. 

In addition, when individuals in the group can act without the fear of retribution for making mistakes or without the fear for being undervalued by acknowledging their limitations, they focus on achieving success rather than preventing setbacks and mistakes — in the words of the researchers, the group’s efforts are promotion- rather than prevention-focused. 

With all individuals united, enabled and motivated to help their group or organization achieve the highest levels of performance, positive results are inevitable.

The researchers used three studies to prove the causal relationship between the factors in the study: specifically, the studies showed that leadership humility leads to collective humility; and that collective humility, because it generates a collective promotion focus in the group, leads to higher performance.

The three studies, involving more than 600 participants divided into 181 groups, used surveys to measure the three core research factors (leadership humility, collective humility and collective promotion focus). The first laboratory study, based on a one-hour task, with the humility of the leader manipulated by researchers, showed the causal relationship between these three factors. 

The second laboratory experiment showed how these factors were positively linked to results. It was based on a 10-week strategic simulation exercise where results were measured by the value of each group’s stock market value.

The third study was based on surveys given to 326 employees of a healthcare company organized into 77 work teams. The surveys measured the relationship between all the factors in the study: leadership humility, collective humility, collective promotion focus, and work team performance.

Business Application

That positive leadership behaviour leads to high performance by the leader’s group is not new. Transformational leaders, for example, will motivate and inspire better results from their followers. These results, however, occur because the transformational leaders change the culture and values of their organizations. 

This research demonstrates the opportunity that leaders have to directly influence the behaviour in their organizations by modelling behaviour that can be emulated by followers. The humility of the leader becomes contagious, and this social contagion leaders to higher results. 

It’s important to also note that transformational leadership may be effective when an organization is under extreme threat or facing major challenges, when a change of culture and values is required; however leadership humility may be more effective, in terms of team performance, when dealing with everyday challenges.

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Idea conceived

  • May 2015

Idea posted

  • January 2019

DOI number



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