The Most Surprising Attribute of Great Leaders

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Research into 63 companies and their CEOs reveals unexpected leadership factor.

Great leaders should be bombastic, omniscient, controlling and possessed of the easy confidence that their decisions are right.

People want certainty, they need authority.

Or do they?

One of the most surprising factors repeatedly found in great leaders has nothing to do with bombast, certainty or authority.

New research published in Administrative Science Quarterly once again finds that it’s humility which can produce the best performance from an organisation.

The finding comes from interviews with CEOs of 63 Chinese companies and around 1,000 of their employees (Ou et al., 2014).

They found that CEOs who were humble were more likely to empower the top management team, which in turn enabled the management team to be better integrated.

The empowering organisational climate then trickled down through the middle managers which increased their job performance, commitment and engagement with work.

The study’s authors describe the essential attributes of the humble leader:

“Overall, humble individuals accept that something is greater than the self. Humility is manifested in self-awareness, openness to feedback, appreciation of others, low self-focus, and pursuit of self-transcendence.

Humble people willingly seek accurate self-knowledge and accept their imperfections while remaining fully aware of their talents and abilities.

They appreciate others’ positive worth, strengths, and contributions and thus have no need for entitlement or dominance over others.” (Ou et al., 2014).

This is not the first study to pick up on this unexpected leadership factor.

One US study looked at Fortune 1000 companies that had been turned around by their CEOs (Collins, 2001).

That research found that one important factor which lifted leaders from ‘good to great’ was modesty.

The most effective leaders weren’t grand-standing show-offs; they were incredibly modest and humble.

It probably doesn’t hurt that humble leaders are also much more universally liked than their authoritarian counterparts.

The authors of the Chinese study conclude:

“Our findings alter the common misunderstanding that humble CEOs lack confidence or may be unable to motivate others.

We suggest that influential leaders need not be masculine, dominant, or authoritarian.

Instead they can be humble and form shared meaning across hierarchical levels, which in turn affects employee attitudes and behaviors at lower levels.

Humble CEOs have strategic value in building competitive advantage through cultivating shared perceptions across hierarchical levels.” (Ou et al., 2014).

Image credit: Atos

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 1 August 2014

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License