Humility, not just self-promotion, a path to leadership, study finds

Humble leaders can ascend organizational hierarchies through informal career mentoring and building a network of loyal followers in the workplace, according to a study published in the journal Human Resource Management.

Contrary to popular belief, leaders don’t always need a dominant personality or heavy self-promotion to ascend the corporate ladder, the study authors found. Instead, leader humility can translate to positive leader mentorship behavior, which in turn leads to a higher leader status in the organization and higher leader promotability, they wrote.

“Conventional wisdom is that you’ve got to be Machiavellian and self-promote and bully to rise to the top, but humility is also a catalyst for leadership success,” David Hekman, a study co-author and associate professor of organizational leadership and information analytics at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a statement. “Humility in leadership benefits teams, individuals and entire organizations. People experience more psychological freedom, authenticity, job satisfaction, improved team performance and motivation. And humility spreads, too — it’s contagious.”

Hekman and colleagues surveyed 610 leaders across 18 industries and 21 functions. The research team analyzed leader humility based on opinions from the leaders’ peers, leader mentoring behavior based on responses from direct reports, leader status from their immediate bosses and leader promotability from their superiors.

Ultimately, the study showed that humble leaders tended to foster informal career mentoring, which gave them status in the organization, the authors found. As humble leaders pass on skills, they build social capital and a supportive network. Superiors recognize this status, which leads to promotions.

Humble leaders are also able to create a culture of learning and admit mistakes due to their elevated status among peers and other leaders in the organization.

“Choosing a path of dominance is fraught with risk. A single error can leave you vulnerable to competitors eager to usurp your position,” Hekman said. “In contrast, adopting humility surrounds you with individuals who respect and support you. Mistakes are more readily forgiven, paving a slower yet more resilient path to leadership.”

A culture of learning is vital for hiring and retention, a University of Pennsylvania professor told HR Dive. Investing in upskilling, training and learning and development opportunities can both attract job seekers and build employees who are lifelong learners.

Workers also say they want an empathetic employer, and they’d be willing to take a pay cut to work for one, according to an HP report. Emotionally intelligent leaders tend to create a healthier work environment, which in turn boosts employee happiness and retention, the study noted.

In addition, a focus on psychological safety in the workplace reduces attrition and improves happiness and motivation, according to a Boston Consulting Group report. Empathetic leaders drive psychological safety by showing respect for workers’ perspectives, emotions and life situations, the report found.