With leadership, humility can be crucial to success

Humility is a better indicator of intellect than IQ points.

“….People with greater humility are better learners, decision-makers and problem solvers. One study even found that someone’s humility could trump actual IQ in predicting their performance” (Robson, David, “Is This the Secret of Smart Leadership?” May 31, 2020, BBC).

Last week I wrote about leadership. I focused on leadership that took either too much control in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic or didn’t do enough. This week I’m going to explore another aspect of leadership: humility. We all need to understand the importance of this trait when voting this November.

Before I begin, let’s define humility according to Miriam-Webster: “freedom from pride or arrogance.”

People who are humble listen better. They boost productivity and strategic thinking. In doing so, they can raise the performance level of a whole organization. All of us watch the actions and behaviors of others, especially leaders. We tend to emulate their attitudes, often subconsciously.

There has been a paradigm shift in thinking about leadership in recent years. In the past, the emphasis was on building self-confidence and self-esteem. Now, in our current political environment, humility has risen in importance. These two paradigms are not in contradiction to each other. In order to have humility, your self-confidence and self-esteem have to be high. It takes a great deal of confidence to admit you don’t have all the answers, that someone may know more or be smarter than you.

For the past 20 years or so, parents and teachers encouraged optimism and what Robson calls “unconditional positivity.” From my observations, this approach is not a very balanced way to raise or teach children. Children need to deal in the reality that they are flawed and ignorant of many things. My experience has taught me that most of us have trouble dealing with reality. We tend to create our own bubbles where we don’t face the elephant in the room.

An organizational psychologist at Brigham Young University did a 2013 study using 144 managerial students. They were asked to rate each other on statements such as: 1) “This person actively seeks feedback, even if it is critical,” 2)“This person admits it when they don’t know how to do something” and 3) “This person acknowledges when others have more knowledge and skills than him- or herself,” The psychologist spent the subsequent year observing the students based on their ratings.

The results were startling. The students who were considered the most humble received higher grades than those who were rated to have higher opinions of themselves. Here’s a quote from Robson’s article: “Indeed, the humility ratings proved to be a better predictor of performance than measures of actual intelligence. Humility was particularly important for some of the less-gifted students, almost completely compensating for their lack of natural intelligence and allowing them to perform as well as people with much higher IQ scores.”

According to the study, the humbler students started at a lower level than their more self- confident comrades. But because they acknowledged their weaknesses and gaps in their knowledge, their level increased over the year, while those with higher opinions of themselves plateaued. IQ levels didn’t matter.

Humbler students were more teachable. They showed more curiosity. They also exhibited the trait of wanting to learn solely for the sake of learning. That allowed them to be more open to new ideas. Humble people work to override their gut reactions and, since they are more reflective in their thinking, they tend not to be as susceptible to cognitive bias and misinformation. They’re better at discerning truth from lies. Angela Merkel has endured as German chancellor for 15 years because she listened to the opinions of others before she came to decisions of her own. A sign of a humble person is their ability to acknowledge their own flaws.

Based upon another study cited by Robson, “humbler leaders cultivated greater work engagement and job satisfaction among their employees.”

Humble leaders encourage greater collaboration and information sharing. Being able to say, “I don’t know” to a particular problem and asking a lot of questions signal someone who values the opinions of others. When we admit we don’t know something, it’s a sign of strength rather than weakness. The Apostle Paul said it best: “When I am weak, then I’m strong.”

Humility is a paradox, but it’s seeing oneself as authentic. People are drawn to authenticity. The opposite qualities drive people away. Leadership expert Andy Stanley noted: “Closed minded leaders close minds.”

Think about that when you cast your ballot this November.


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Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
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