One popular conception of the CEO is of someone ubermasculine, dominant, and aggressive. From Elon Musk to Donald Trump to Harvey Weinstein, c-suites throughout the world are littered with examples, all compounding our notion that to be successful, you have to be domineering and even arrogant. Mountains of new evidence suggest otherwise, however, and it’s becoming more accepted that good leaders have empathy. But what about humility? Although in many ways, this quality is at odds with how we think of leaders, in some new leadership research, I’ve come across compelling data* that suggests the ability to be humble is not only helpful to good leaders, but also essential to a company’s bottom line. Here’s why:
1. They Put Collective Goals Above Their Own
Humble CEOs are often just as ambitious as their megalomaniacal counterparts, but they seek success for the whole organization and yearn to be a part of something greater than themselves. This is in marked contrast to those CEOs who are driven by accumulation of wealth, personal adulation, and celebrity status. Humble CEOs have an awareness of their smallness in the grand scheme of things. Unlike some of the characters we see making headlines for their flagrant abuse of power, these CEOs don’t consider themselves above moral laws and deeply value their connection with the larger community.
2. They Can Take Feedback, Even When It’s Negative
Arrogant CEOs resist being questioned, and anyone who does so is likely to get serious blowback; it’s the entire reason whistle-blower laws exist. Humble CEOs, on the other hand, place a high value on continuing to learn and improve, and therefore seek an honest understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. They understand not only the humanity and limitations of others, but also their own. This makes them both more open to new ideas and feedback from others, and less likely to lose perspective and destroy a company because they can’t accept their own fallibility.
3. They Value Their Team
Humble CEOs are more likely to trust and empower their top management teams. Rather than surrounding themselves with yes-men and yes-women who would never question them (I’m looking at you, Dov Charney) and centralizing their power, humble CEOs know that an organization’s success doesn’t hinge solely on their brilliance. They’ll hire smart, capable, competitive people and then involve them in big decisions, sharing power and credit. Companies run by humble CEOs are also much less likely to have outsize pay disparity within their management structure, something that can cause bitter internal battles and spell disaster for a company.
4. They Make for Balanced Leaders
CEOs must have certain qualities to attain a position of power. Drive, ambition, and other characteristics from the List of Ten are all likely to show up in the personality makeup of anyone who has risen to the top of an organization. But mean men from Steve Jobs to Lance Armstrong show us what it looks like when these qualities run amok—verbally and psychologically abusing others, throwing temper tantrums, and manipulating those around them—it’s not pretty. But the right amount of humility in a leader can temper these other qualities and help a leader keep his or her emotions in check, as well as keep them from taking outsize risks. Because the good of their organization—not their personal glory—remains their top priority.
5. They Play Well With Others
Studies have linked employer humility to employee engagement and team integration: two defining characteristics of a company’s long-term health and success. Humble CEOs set an example that others want to follow and engender more goodwill than their bombastic, ruthless counterparts. Because they appropriately value their team members (and don’t overvalue their own contributions), humble CEOs can facilitate mutual trust and discourage infighting. Because they deeply value the organization and everyone in it, they’re able to create a shared vision so that when the company succeeds, everyone feels they had a hand in it.
As scholars begin to look more carefully at humble CEOs to see if they really make a positive difference in organizational performance as compared with their blowhard counterparts, the emerging data points to “yes.” Not only have executive teams been shown to be more integrated when the CEO is humble, but early indicators from long-term studies are pointing to a significantly greater inclination for these senior teams to deal with market disruption and innovation more effectively.
As more hard data comparing narcissistic and mean CEOs with their humble counterparts makes its way through the research pipeline, rest assured we’ll be sharing it here.
*“Do Humble CEOs Matter? An Examination of CEO Humility and Firm Outcomes” by Amy Y. Ou, David A. Waldman, and Suzanne J. Peterson from the Journal of Management.