Personality and leadership: The need for humility

Insight Article - June 10, 2020

Leadership Development

Culture & Engagement

Oscar Moreno III MBA, CMPE
The world is filled with as many personalities as there are people. There are serious people and mischievous people — boisterous and reserved, as well as introverted and extroverted. 

There is arguably an obsession with different personality types and their related implications. One can test his or her personality type with a simple or complex quiz such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or any of the thousands of personality quizzes found on social media. There are countless books, DVDs, TED Talks, magazine articles and other forms of media telling you what type of personality will get you ahead in life, and people will go to great lengths to develop what they deem the “ideal” personality. 

On the other hand, there is also a “growing interest in dysfunctional dispositions”1 — the types of personalities that are not ideal. This is especially true in the business world, where people are eager to know which personality traits make the best leaders and which ones don’t. Despite the varied opinions and self-proclaimed research, scholarly backed evidence of which personality traits create the most effective leaders is still in its infancy.

Most people have heard the phrase, “Smiles are contagious.” In a similar fashion, the ways in which our attitudes and personalities are exhibited to others can influence those around us. 

In this context, humility is a personality trait that should be strongly desired in leaders. Nontraditional leadership — humility, acknowledging weakness/faults and not having all the answers — builds stronger teams because subordinates look to their leaders on how to behave in new situations.2 According to Bradley P. Owens, PhD, associate professor, public service and ethics, BYU Marriott School of Business, and David R. Hekman, PhD, associate professor, organizational leadership and information analytics, University of Colorado Boulder Leeds School of Business:

As teams watch their leaders give away some of their power by admitting limitations and mistakes, allowing themselves to be taught rather than doing all the teaching, and drawing attention to others’ contributions and strengths, they reinforce a cooperative, others-oriented interactive logic; they send a message about the value of collective striving over personal status seeking.3 

Research has found that a non-traditional leadership style, defined as emotional intelligence, improves transformational leadership and is a strong influencer of positive motivation.4 A non-traditional leader can further be described as an individual who strives to exhibit the three following characteristics: 
  1. Introspective — views oneself in an accurate and realistic manner acknowledging his or her own limitations
  2. Grateful — appreciates the strengths and contributions of others, and incorporates their work on a consistent basis
  3. Knowledge seeking — open and excited to learning new ideas.5 
Opposite humility is narcissism. A narcissistic leader tends to have a hyperinflated view of oneself with a disregard for others, as well as an interest in protecting one’s ego instead of obtaining new knowledge. This type of leader is correlated to leadership positions; however, it is not a predictor of success in those roles.6 This could be due to the fact that leadership is ideally a tool to be used to foster collaboration to accomplish a common goal. A self-serving individual may find it difficult to encourage such collaboration. On the other hand, a leader with more humble tendencies, or a servant leader, is more likely to be committed to the successes of the group. The servant leader has the capacity to significantly increase cooperation within the team, helping them achieve more than they would independently.7

As humble leaders show their limitations and allow themselves to be taught,8 they demonstrate their need to learn more and become dependent on others, exemplifying the need for collaboration. This need for further knowledge can be the difference between a positive decision and a negative decision. It is human nature to overestimate one’s own accuracy level; however, those who have a higher need for cognition are not as susceptible, and less influenced by presentation and framing biases.9 

The exact phrases used to describe a personality trait can differ; however, the definitions tend to reflect similar ideas. Humility has the potential to strengthen teams, encouraging a group to become stronger in accomplishing a common goal. A humble leader creates a group of humble individuals who rely on, encourage and teach each other, ultimately accomplishing better results. 

Notes:

  1. Khoo HS, Burch GSJ. “The ‘dark side’ of leadership personality and transformational leadership: An exploratory study.” Personality and Individual Differences, 44(1), 86–97. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.07.018.
  2. Owens BP, Hekman DR. “How Does Leader Humility Influence Team Performance? Exploring the Mechanisms of Contagion and Collective Promotion Focus.” Academy of Management Journal, 59(3), 1,088–1,111. doi: 10.5465/amj.2013.0660.
  3. Ibid., 1,091.
  4. Khoo.
  5. Owens.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Gillet J, Cartwright E, Vugt MV. “Selfish or servant leadership? Evolutionary predictions on leadership personalities in coordination games.” Personality and Individual Differences, 51(3), 231–236. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.06.003
  8. Owens.
  9. Carnevale JJ, Inbar Y, Lerner JS. “Individual differences in need for cognition and decision-making competence among leaders.” Personality and Individual Differences, 51(3), 274–278. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.07.002.

About the Author

Oscar Moreno III
Oscar Moreno III MBA, CMPE
Practice Manager Gulf Coast Cardiology — HCA Healthcare Panama City, Fla.
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