Leader humility: Definition and explanation

Leader humility: Definition and explanation


Leadership Humility

Leadership humility is becoming recognised as a key leadership trait in many (but not all) situations. Whilst confidence and certainty in a leader can be an attractive trait it is possible to overdo it (overconfidence) particularly in uncertain and rapidly changing contexts.


There is a fine balance between a leader displaying confidence and overconfidence, highhandedness or even arrogance. An area of growing interest in terms of leadership research, is the impact of leader humility on employees. A number of previous studies have shown that leadership humility can have a series of positive outcomes in the workplace including:

  • Higher levels of employee work engagement
  • Higher levels of job satisfaction
  • Increased job performance
  • Increased trust in the leader
  • Higher levels of LMX or leader-member exchange
  • Better levels of identification with the leader by employees
  • Employee retention
  • Increased productivity


Leader humility

Previous studies[i] have found that a number of leadership styles such as:

  • Transformational
  • Servant
  • Authentic
  • Empowerment

leadership styles, are often characterised by a level of leader humility and tend to have a positive impact on employee well-being, and therefore also on employs levels of job satisfaction, working age and emotional exhaustion for example.

Humility is often seen as being a personal characteristic on a continuum between self-abasement, lowliness or a sense of inferiority and arrogance, narcissism, superiority and conceit.

One of the more popular research definitions of humility is that it is a stable characteristic of accuracy of self-perception and the ability to have perspective on oneself at any moment in time. 


The three key components of leader humility

Commonly, researchers have found[ii] that humility comprises of three key elements of:

  1. Self-awareness or the ability to be able to understand one’s own strengths and weaknesses from a more objective and external standpoint
  2. Openness or a willingness to explore and take on new ideas, thinking, knowledge and behaviours in the light of external evidence
  3. Transcendence or the ability to be able to move away from one’s subjective perspective and take on an inclusive and more objective perspective of both themselves and the context


Predictors of humility

Previous studies[iii] have found that there are four negative key predictors and one positive key predictor of humility as a behavioural trait:

Negative predictors (factors which when present tend to predict a lack of humility):

  1. Narcissism or being overly or pathologically self admiring
  2. Machiavellianism or being obsessively concerned with some achievement regardless of the impact on others rather than any sense of morality
  3. Low self-esteem
  4. Defensiveness and defensively high levels of self-esteem

The positive predictive trait of humility:

  1. Emotional awareness and emotion regulation capability


Leadership humility and employee wellbeing

A new (2020) study [iv] found that:

  1. Leader humility has a strong significant and positive impact on employee well-being as measured by increased levels of:
    1. Job satisfaction
    2. Work engagement
    3. Emotional exhaustion
  2. Leader humility tends to lead to higher levels of employee humility
  3. Leader expressed humility (when leaders openly display humility) tends to lead to higher levels of leader well-being
  4. Expressed employee humility (when employees openly display humility) can lead to higher levels of employee well-being but only when:
    1. There are high levels of psychological safety
    2. The humility being expressed is genuine and not expressed or displayed in order to create the right impression with others

otherwise, expressed employee humility can have a damaging effect on employee well-being.

  1. The impact of leadership humility on perceived leader effectiveness (where employees believe that the leader is a good and effective leader) is complex and conditional in that humility only tends to lead to perceptions of leadership effectiveness where:
    1. Employees believe fairness and authenticity is a more important leadership trait than dominance, confidence and certainty.
    2. Employees or projects are not under time pressure
    3. There is a culture of learning or a high learning orientation within the organisation
    4. Lower levels of leader-employee distance (where employees identify with the leaders)
    5. Lower levels of hierarchical adherence

otherwise humility is significantly more likely to be seen as an indication of low levels of leadership effectiveness.

So humility can be a positive in the right environment or a negative in the wrong situation.

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[i] Morris, J. A., Brotheridge, C. M., & Urbanski, J. C. (2005). Bringing humility to leadership: Antecedents and consequences of leader humility. Human relations58(10), 1323-1350.

Owens, B. P., Wallace, A. S., & Waldman, D. A. (2015). Leader narcissism and follower outcomes: The counterbalancing effect of leader humility. Journal of Applied Psychology100(4), 1203.

Owens, B. P., & Hekman, D. R. (2016). How does leader humility influence team performance? Exploring the mechanisms of contagion and collective promotion focus. Academy of Management Journal59(3), 1088-1111.

Hu, J., Erdogan, B., Jiang, K., Bauer, T. N., & Liu, S. (2018). Leader humility and team creativity: The role of team information sharing, psychological safety, and power distance. Journal of Applied Psychology103(3), 313.


[ii] Morris, J. A., Brotheridge, C. M., & Urbanski, J. C. (2005). Bringing humility to leadership: Antecedents and consequences of leader humility. Human relations58(10), 1323-1350.

Jeung, C. W., & Yoon, H. J. (2016). Leader humility and psychological empowerment: investigating contingencies. Journal of Managerial Psychology.


[iii] Morris, J. A., Brotheridge, C. M., & Urbanski, J. C. (2005). Bringing humility to leadership: Antecedents and consequences of leader humility. Human relations58(10), 1323-1350.


[iv] Zhong, J., Zhang, L., Li, P., & Zhang, D. Z. (2019). Can leader humility enhance employee wellbeing? The mediating role of employee humility. Leadership & Organization Development Journal.


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