A Review of Humble Leadership

A Review of Humble Leadership

Humble leadership

There are well over 120 different types of leadership. Moral-oriented forms of leadership focus on promoting ethical behaviour. These include styles such as ethical leadership (maintaining ethical norms), servant leadership (personal/professional development of followers) and humble leadership.

Humble Leaders

Humble leaders demonstrate humility by:
• Being willing to evaluate their skills and behaviours honestly.
• Acknowledging the valuable skills and contributions of others and showing appreciation.
• Remaining humble enough to learn at any stage of their career.

Previous studies on Humble Leadership

Humble leadership is dynamic because its presence fluctuates over time in different contexts and situations. It can also vary on a daily basis. Previous studies have found that an increase in humble leadership behaviours is common after a leader experienced failure and begins to display more humility. Further, it has been found that leaders can often develop an increased humility and humble leadership style in the later stages of their careers.
Past studies have shown that humble leaders usually generate positive changes in employee behaviour, work attitudes and performance.

Humble Leadership Behaviours

Humble leadership behaviours include:
• Asking for, and listening to, feedback from peers and followers
• Admitting mistakes
• Placing value on diversity and different ways people contribute to the well-being of the organisation

Humble Leadership

Humble leadership has been found to be strongly implicated in:

  1. Organisational justice – employee perceptions of how fairly they are treated compared to their co-workers
  2. A positive organisational climate – the type of work environment in which leaders and employees interact that promotes either positive social behaviours or negative ones
  3. Developing team leader humility
  4. Increasing the level of humility among followers
humble leadership

Previous research on Humble Leadership

Previous research about humble leadership has found that:

  • A 2021 study found that some humble leaders can, in certain circumstances, engage in unethical behaviour, where the leader feels they have accumulated surplus moral credits and are ‘owed’ for their good behaviour.
  • For the most part, however, outcomes are positive, for instance the increased flow of information in work teams.
  • Humble leaders tend to improve employees’ attitudes towards helping co-workers.
  • Teamwork becomes more constructive and employees benefit by developing more psychological capital, such as higher self-efficacy and an optimistic outlook under humble leaders.
  • Employees are given more autonomy and trusted to accomplish work goals, which tends to increase their performance.

A new study

A new study by researchers from Kansas State University, the University of Northern Iowa and the University of Oklahoma in America has conducted a systematic review of the humble leadership research to date.


Generally, humble leadership generates positive outcomes, although leaders can sometimes experience negative consequences.

Behavioural outcomes

Humble leaders tend to inspire a range of behaviours from employees:

  • Voice behaviour, where employees feel able to speak up to contribute new ideas or share feedback about things in the organisation that need to be improved.
  • A proactive mindset that encourages employees to take more initiative.
  • Lower employee turnover and withdrawal from work activities.
  • Increased levels of organisational citizenship behaviour.
  • A sense of entitlement can develop in employees that can increase deviant antisocial behaviours.

Attitudinal outcomes

Humble leaders also facilitate changes in employees’ work attitudes, such as:

  • Higher levels of empathy, satisfaction and gratitude
  • Positive social norms, such as helping co-workers and increased teamwork
  • A more ethical work culture
  • An increase in the perceived effectiveness of work teams by team members
  • Higher levels of trust between co-workers and resilience during periods of stress
humble leadership

Performance outcomes

The improvement in behaviour and attitudes of employees tends to translate into increased performance outcomes, such as:

  • Increases in overall organisational and individual performance
  • Higher levels of innovation, creativity and learning  
  • Increased corporate social responsibility demonstrated by work policies that tend to support social welfare goals and using environmental resources responsibly
  • Improved perceptions of performance among leaders

Consequences for humble leaders

Sometimes, however, humble leaders experience some consequences like:

  • Emotional exhaustion that can cause higher turnover rates and increased work-family conflicts for leaders who are less honest and fail to set personal boundaries and needs.
  • Negative social perceptions of female leaders who show humility as it tends to support stereotypes about women’s lower self-confidence in leadership positions when compared to men.
  • Slower career advancement, since a leader’s humility can be perceived as a personal lack of confidence.

Primary reference

Kelemen, T. K., Matthews, S. H., Matthews, M. J., & Henry, S. E. (2022). Humble leadership: A review and synthesis of leader expressed humility. Journal of Organizational Behavior.

How Leader Humour Helps to Develop Employee Creativity


Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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