Popular culture likes its business and political leaders larger than life. Think Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jordan Belfort (better known as the Wolf of Wall Street) or even President Donald Trump. It’s nothing new.
Throughout history, humility and leadership generally were seen as incompatible. Aristotle didn’t bother to include humility in his list of virtues. Philosopher David Hume went further, labeling humility as a vice.
Mindfulness expert Gadadhara Pandit Dasa explains that humility, or a lack of ego, often is mistaken for weakness: “Generally, when we hear the term ‘humility,’ we imagine an individual who lacks confidence, is weak and unsure of themselves and in general is a pushover.”
But, research is beginning to show our instincts might deceive us. We expect leaders to fill the room with their own self-importance and single-minded confidence. A recent study from the University of Aveiro in Portugal reveals that humble leaders actually make their teams more creative.
How can more humility equal more creativity?
The study surveyed 73 business leaders and teams across 40 organizations, asking respondents about the humility level of their bosses and the emotional state of the team. Researchers also sought to measure the creativity of the work produced.
After crunching the numbers, the research team came to two interesting conclusions. The first is that teams and their leaders don’t always agree on the level of humility displayed by the boss.
The second (and perhaps more interesting finding) was that when team members considered their boss to be a humble leader, they felt psychologically safer. This, in turn, increased their "psychological capital" — psycap, for short. These are the feelings of hope, optimism and resilience, which team members need to experience so they can perform at their peak. Data showed that when psycap rises, teams become more creative.
The research draws a direct line between a leader’s level of humility and the positive vibes that can stimulate more innovative and creative work.
Being a humble boss is just plain good business, it seems. The researchers concluded that “humble leaders are more effective because they (…) produce several positive attitudes and behaviors in team members, which may enhance the leader’s effectiveness in achieving the team goals."
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What is humility, exactly?
All of this begs the question, what is humility? And is it a skill that can be learned?
In his book "Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love and Leadership," Macquarie University professor John Dickson defines the trait as “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.”
Cultivating humility is perfectly possible, according to CEO Coach John Dame and Georgetown University professor Jeffrey Gedmin. They believe that leaders can be trained to put forth their best while also muting their egos for the benefit of the organization. In doing so, leaders open themselves up to outside (and sometimes crazy-sounding) ideas.
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In essence, a leader can be taught to resist his or her "master of the universe impulses." Business moguls and political figures have achieved this in a few different ways.
Appoint someone. Instead of surrounding themselves with an entourage of "yes men" or "yes women," leaders could hire someone to keep their egos in check. It certainly isn't a new idea: During the 18th century, Maria Theresa did just that. During her time as the only female ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she brought massive domestic financial and educational reforms to her empire — all while increasing its international reputation. (She also gave birth to 16 children, one of whom was Marie Antoinette.)
One of Maria Theresa's advisors was a Portuguese courtier whom she'd known since childhood, Count Emanuel Silva-Tarouca. His entire job was to help Maria Theresa become self-aware of her mistakes. Historian Mary Maxwell Moffat called him the royal’s “self-imposed curb.” In modern business settings, this role sometimes is explicitly assigned to a so-called "devil’s advocate" who tactfully can warn management of hubris.
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Move out of the corner office. A leader who strips him- or herself of a few material perks might find it easier to maintain a more approachable attitude. Former President of Uruguay Jose Mujica donated 90 percent of his monthly salary to charity. Instead of setting up camp in the presidential palace, he chose to stay on his small farm. He bicycled to work or took his trusted Volkswagen Beetle.
Mujica was motivated by his deep commitment to the egalitarian principles of a democratic republic. "As soon as politicians climb up the ladder, they become kings," he said. "But what I know is that republics came to the world to make sure that no one is more than anyone else."
That doesn't mean Mujica lacked ambition in his top office, however. His sweeping reforms led The Economist to name Uruguay its "country of the year" in 2013.
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Dial up the empathy. Other leaders supercharge their empathy to stay humble. Take Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA. Despite a net worth of more than $33 billion, Kamprad flies economy and encourages IKEA employees to use both sides of a piece of paper before throwing it out.
His way of staying humble includes listening to team members' ideas. He takes them seriously, wherever they might originate in the corporate organization chart. He once suggested “the work floor is the best university." He's known for telling people he doesn’t know everything and “has many shortcomings.”
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All these techniques can be boiled down to one basic piece of advice: Spend less time focused on yourself. As author and management expert Ken Blanchard has said, “People with humility do not think less of themselves, they just think about themselves less.”