Exploring the Relevance and Implications of
Humility in Organizations
Bradley P. Owens
University of Michigan
Wade C. Rowatt
Alan L. Wilkins
Brigham Young University
September 1, 2010
Manuscript to appear the Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, Eds. Kim
Cameron and Gretchen Spreitzer.
In this chapter, we explore the meaning and relevance of humility within the context of
organizations. After briefly reviewing the history of the construct of humility and synthesizing
past definitions of humility, we discuss extant research exploring the impact of humility on
individual performance, prosocial behavior, team processes, and leadership. We conclude by
discussing the potential boundary conditions for the usefulness of humility in organizations and
offering ideas for future research.
(Keywords: Humility, virtues, leadership, teams, learning, adaptation).
Special thanks: We would like to thank Julia Exline and Kim Cameron for their helpful
comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.
Sense shines with a double luster when it is set in humility. An able yet humble man is a jewel
worth a kingdom. -William Penn
Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues: hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not
exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance. -St. Augustine
Introduction—Why Should We Care About Humility?
One misunderstanding of Positive Organizational Scholarship is that it is a rosy lens,
attending only to strengths, abundance, and the positive, largely ignoring real limits, set-backs,
and problems (Fineman, 2006). Contrary to this view, Positive Organizational Scholarship
entails viewing negative events, limits, and failures as important catalysts that can facilitate
adaptation, reawakening, resilience, and growth (Cameron, Dutton, and Quinn, 2003).
Similarly, humility is a virtue that concerns human limits—how to view and handle
human limits productively, adaptively, and constructively. Given its focus on limits, no wonder
humility makes some uncomfortable (Hume, 1994, 219/270; see also Grenberg, 2005, pp. 1-5)
and has been identified as a much neglected topic in social science (Tangney, 2000). Despite past
neglect, we propose that general workplace trends such as global competition, technological
innovation, team-based structures, information-based economies—all of which make the
workplace increasingly dynamic, turbulent, interdependent, and uncertain (Crossan et al., 2008;
Ireland and Hitt, 1999)—make humility in organizations an ―idea whose time has come‖ (Hugo,
1877/2005). In light of anticipated challenges and changes that continue to unfold in the 21st
century, scholars have suggested a greater need for organizational members to have the humility
to acknowledge areas of ignorance and inexperience and to foster the learning and adaptation
that will be required to succeed in an increasingly unpredictable workplace (see Weick, 2001;
Senge, 2005; Kotter, 1995). Theorists have proposed further that humility is the ―cornerstone of
organizational learning, high-quality service to customers and employees, and organizational
resilience‖ (Vera and Rodriguez-Lopez, 2004, 393; see also Hamel, 2007, p. 96) since it fosters
an openness to new paradigms, an eagerness to learn from others, an acknowledgement of
limitations and mistakes, and a more realistic picture of both the firm and the firm‘s external
Outside of the organizational literature, this last decade has seen a resurgence of interest
in the construct of humility. For instance, philosophers have recently reopened discussion about
the meaning, merits, and implications of humility in leading a moral and happy life (Grenberg,
2005; Roberts & Wood, 2003). Psychologists also have begun discussing and theorizing about
humility (i.e., Tangney, 2000; Exline et al. 2004; Morris, Brotheridge, and Urbanski, 2004)—
undoubtedly sparked by the general movement of positive psychology (Seligman and
Csikszentmihaly, 2000). We acknowledge our debt to philosophers and psychologists for
providing a theoretical foundation for our understanding of humility. However, in this chapter
our primary purpose is not to offer an extensive review of all that past philosophers and
psychologists have said about humility (for such reviews see Tangney, 2000; Exline et al. 2004;
Grenberg, 2005) or to discuss the nuanced conceptual distinctions between humility and related
constructs (for such discussions see Exline et al., 2004; Owens, 2009a; Peterson and Seligman,
2004). Rather, our main goal is to sketch a potential research stream exploring humility in the
context of organizations. To accomplish this goal, we will (1) briefly discuss the historical roots,
meaning, and past operationalizations of humility, (2) discuss the increasing relevance of
humility in today‘s organizations, (3) highlight extant research on humility, (4) consider possible
disadvantages to humility in organizations, and (5) offer recommendations for future research.
The History and Meaning of Humility
The topic of humility has a rich background in theology and philosophy. Because
humility often entails the appreciation of knowledge and worth beyond the self, it is a
foundational principle in most world religions. Humility is also central to many philosophical
discussions of morality. Immanuel Kant, for example, viewed humility as a ―meta-attitude which
constitutes the moral agent‘s proper perspective on himself‖ and a virtue foundational to most
other virtues (Grenberg, 2005, p. 133) because humility tempers other virtues, opens one to the
influence and needs of others, and insists on reality rather than pretense. Psychologists categorize
humility as a ―temperance virtue‖ that guards against excess (i.e., excessive self-focus or inflated
estimation of one‘s own knowledge and abilities; see Park and Peterson, 2003) and have held up
humility as a historically revered characteristic and a multifaceted strength (Tangney, 2000).
The word humility is rooted in the Latin word ―humus‖ meaning ―earth‖ or ―ground,‖
and from the Latin word ―humilis‖ meaning ―on the ground‖ (Online Etymology Dictionary,
2010). Colloquialisms such as ―down- to- earth‖ and ―having a grounded view‖ reflect humility‘s
lexical origin. Thus, in general terms, humility means to have a grounded view or perspective of
oneself and others. One scholar suggests that humility entails a deeply held ―belief in the equal
dignity and shared limits of all persons‖ (Grenberg, 2005, p. 164). From this perspective,
humility may entail seeing the self and others as sharing general human limitations as well as
worth and dignity (see humanity self-construal, Harb and Smith, 2008). This grounded view of
self and others enables a humble person to acknowledge their own personal qualities and
limitations (as well as those of others) without producing feelings of superiority or inferiority.
Associating humility with inferiority has been, we believe, an unfortunate (and incorrect)
conceptualization which has led some thinkers and scholars to question its worthiness as a
The main distinction between nonvirtuous and virtuous conceptualizations of humility
depends upon whether self-respect and a stable sense of self-worth are proposed to accompany
humility. In other words, a stable sense of self-worth is fundamental to virtuous humility
an Aristotelian ethics standpoint, where virtues represent the ―golden mean‖ or middle ground
between two extremes, humility represents ―the mid-point between the two negative extremes of
arrogance and lack of self-esteem‖ (Vera and Rodriguez-Lopez, 2004, 395) or ―that crest of
human excellence between arrogance and lowliness‖ (Morris et al., 2005, 1331). As Grenberg
(2005) aptly states:
―The humble person is one who has achieved a balance of appreciation of [personal]
worth and limit, and thereby avoids despair. Humility…would not be a virtuous state
unless it maintained just this balance. The humble person takes her awareness of limit as
an impetus to action instead of as a warrant for despairing inaction‖ (p. 181).
Aside from the general, philosophical roots of humility, psychologists have
conceptualized humility as a ―multifaceted strength‖ (Tangney, 2000; Morris et al. 2005), having
multiple dimensions. As a newly considered construct in the field of psychology, the proposed
dimensions of humility vary widely and have yet to reach consensus. However, in one systematic
For instance, David Hume (Hume, 1994, p. 219/270) said: ―Humility…and the whole train of the monkish virtues;
for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no purpose? We justly,
therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices.‖
According to Grenberg (2005), for the humble person ―The urgency of the questions of self-worth recedes because
they have been adequately answered. The judgments and feelings which constitute her meta-attitude [about herself]
are not being made constantly but rather, for the successfully humble person, are completed and receded into the
background‖ (p. 159). Tendencies to self-enhance and to maintain an inflated view of oneself (Kruger and Dunning,
1999; Taylor and Brown, 1994) may stem from lingering or unresolved questions about one‘s self-worth and have
been associated with maladjustment, brittle ego-defense systems, deceitfulness, and lower productivity (see Colvin,
Block, and Funder, 1995).
review of the humility literature, Owens (2009a)
identified the most commonly attributed or
core facets of humility. Given space restrictions, we will highlight the three most prevalent
dimensions that appear in past definitions of humility.
The most commonly cited dimension of humility involves the capacity or willingness to
evaluate oneself without positive or negative exaggeration, leading to a more accurate,
nondefensive, objective self-view. For instance, psychologists propose that humility entails an
―accurate assessment of one‘s abilities and achievements‖ and the ―ability to acknowledge one‘s
mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations‖ (Tangney, 2002, p.73), a
nondefensive acknowledgment of strengths and limitations (Exline et al., 2004) and a willingness
to see the self accurately (Morris, Brotheridge, and Urbanski, 2005; Owens, 2009a). In
organizational parlance, humility appears to enable a person to conduct a more accurate
S.W.O.T. analysis (i.e., Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats) of intra-personal
Another common element of past definitions entails viewing others in an appreciative,
non-threatened way. For example, humility involves appreciating the value and contributions of
others (Tangney, 2002, 74), acknowledging the strengths of others without feeling threatened by
them (Exline et al., 2004), and having ―an exalted view of the capacities of others rather than a
negative view of oneself‖ (King and Hicks, 2007). In other words, humility allows a person to
see and acknowledge the strengths of others without eliciting feelings of inferiority. If humility,
derived from ―humus‖, entails beliefs in shared human limit and dignity, this perspective makes
the specialized knowledge, skills, and unique strengths of others more interesting and more
admirable. Those who possess unique strengths may be seen as exemplars who have excelled
This literature analysis of the definitional dimensions of humility was conducted independently by Owens and a
research assistant then compared for agreement.
despite ubiquitous human limits. Thus, humility may enable a person to transcend the
comparative-competitive model of self-evaluation, allowing the humble person to view others as
exemplars from whom she might learn.
Lastly, previous definitions of humility often entail ―teachability‖ or openness to new
ideas, feedback, and advice. Tangney (2000, p. 72), for example, argued that ―humility carries
with it an open-mindedness, a willingness to…seek advice, and a desire to learn.‖ Humility is
said to connote being ―open to new paradigms…eager to learn from others‖ (Vera and
Rodriguez-Lopez, 2004, p. 395). Templeton (1997) said, ―Inherent in humility resides an open
and receptive mind…it leaves us more open to learn from others‖ (p. 162). In other words,
humility reflects openness to new ideas, advice, and information. In summary, by linking
philosophical roots with psychological conceptualizations, we propose that humility entails a
deeply held belief of shared human limits and worth that shapes how individuals view
themselves (objectively), others (appreciatively), and new information (openly).
Humility has been considered to be a trait (Ashton & Lee, 2008), an orientation (Morris,
Brotheridge, and Urbanski, 2005; Owens, 2009b), and a ―meta-attitude‖ (Grenberg, 2005).
Despite differences in labeling the core nature of humility, there seems to be some agreement in
the psychological literature that humility is something that can be developed
and that its
expression may vary according to situational cues (Tangney, 2002; Owens, Rubenstein, and
The concept of appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987) seems relevant to this facet of humility,
especially if considered at the dyadic or interpersonal level.
Past definitions of humility have also mentioned, though less often, the dimensions of self-transcendence (Morris
et. al, 2005), low self-focus (Tangney, 2002), an orientation toward service, and self-complacency avoidance (Vera
and Rodriguez-Lopez, 2004)
Humility, as a virtue, is ―dynamic in nature and capable of improvement or deterioration‖ (Vera & Rodriguez-
Lopez, 2004, p. 394).
Past Operationalizations of Humility
One of the major obstacles to launching a rigorous study of humility is the challenges of
measurement. One group of researchers asserts that trying to conduct research on humility is
―humbling‖ because of difficulties in measuring this elusive construct (Halling et al., 1994). To
date, researchers have developed self-report, implicit, other-report, and indirect measures of
humility (or closely related constructs). Oddly, there does not appear to be a published self-report
measure of trait humility independent from other constructs. Existing self-report measures of
humility that do exist, blend it with modesty
(Peterson & Seligman, 2004), honesty
Ashton, 2004), and arrogance
(Rowatt et al., 2006). An independent self-report measure of
humility could be very useful.
However, self-reported measures should be interpreted with caution. Genuinely humble
persons may not self-report being humble; whereas, narcissists sometimes create the appearance
of humility to mask their arrogance or grandiose sense of self (American Psychiatric Association,
2004). According to some scholars, it takes cognitive effort to resist the temptation to present
oneself in an overly positive fashion. When cognitive resources are depleted, people described
the self as more narcissistic (i.e., arrogant, egotistical; see Vohs, Baumeister, and Ciarocco,
2005). Furthermore, since self-report measures of humility can easily be exaggerated (positively
or negatively), researchers would be wise to assess and control for desirable responding as well.
Because self-report measures have proven less reliable (Tangney, 2002; Exline et al.,
2004; Owens, 2009a) and somewhat paradoxical (i.e., what do we make of someone who reports
themselves to be exceptionally humble?), scholars have attempted to tap humility indirectly. For
―Modesty connotes a restrained or ―played down‖ estimation of one‘s accomplishments and having the social
savvy not to boast or talk too much about oneself. (Owens, Johnson, and Mitchell, 2010; Exline, el al., 2004)
In this study, honesty seems to capture sincerity when interacting with others.
In this study, arrogance is operationalized simply as the conceptual opposite of humility.
example, humility has been operationalized as low self-esteem (Knight & Nadel, 1986; Weiss &
Knight, 1980) and the negative difference between self and other evaluations (i.e., evaluating self
lower than others, Furnham, Hosoe, & Tang, 2001). But these two operationalizations fail to
capture the virtuous view of humility mentioned above.
In an attempt to circumvent limits of self-report, Rowatt et al. (2006) developed a
Humility-Arrogance Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee, and Schwartz, 1998)
that relies on reaction times to associate humility or arrogant trait terms with the self. The
implicit measure of humility was internally and temporally consistent. Implicit humility
correlated with implicit self-esteem, self-reported humility relative to arrogance, and self-
reported narcissism (inversely) among college students (Rowatt et al., 2006). In general, implicit
measures hold promise for accurately capturing personal humility because they are more difficult
to manipulate or exaggerate than are explicit, self-report measures (Fiedler and Bluemke, 2005).
However, the Humility-Arrogance IAT may not be widely used because it requires a personal
computer and reaction-time software to administer and score. ―Low tech,‖ paper-pencil IATs
exist to measure prejudice (Lemm et al., 2008), but have not yet been adapted to assess humility.
Other-report is a viable alternative to self-report or implicit measurement of humility and
several scholars have suggested using the consensus of ―close observers‖ as the best approach
(Exline et al., 2004; see also Davis, Worthington, & Hook, 2010). For instance, Richards (1992)
argued that while those who actually possess humility are not likely to attribute this virtue to
themselves, close others may be able to observe this virtue more accurately. Testing this idea,
Owens (2009a) developed and administered a self-report and other-report humility scale to
multiple samples and found that compared to self-report humility, measuring other-report
humility is more reliable (i.e., has internal consistency and test retest reliability) and has higher
nomological validity (i.e., associated with other theoretically related constructs as expected).
another study, other-report humility predicted performance and performance improvement,
whereas self-reported humility did not (Owens, 2009a). This finding provides support for the
claim that compared to explicit self-report measures, other-report methodologies are the more
effective method for capturing the seemingly elusive humility construct.
The Growing Importance of Humility in Organizations
At the beginning of this chapter we claimed that humility in organizations was an idea
whose time has come. As a virtue thought to foster learning, we suggest that the importance of
humility is growing because work trends make learning within organizational contexts a key to
maintaining competitive advantage. Trends such as increasingly fast-paced technological
innovation, a global marketplace that requires understanding of and competition with local and
international competitors, teams-based structures that entail increased collaboration and
interdependence, and in general, an increasing amount of work centered on information and
knowledge (i.e., inherent in this ‗information age‘) all suggest a premium to be placed on factors
such as humility that foster individual and organizational learning capability (Bassi, Cheney, and
Lewis, 1998; Senge, 2005). Indeed, it has been clear to organizational researchers since at least
the classic work by Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) that the most successful organizations were
more adaptive (learn more quickly) as their competitive environment became more turbulent.
More recently, other researchers have demonstrated that with even more turbulent ―high-
velocity‖ environments like those facing the computer industry successful organizations would
have to learn how to change continuously (see Brown and Eisenhardt, 1997).
These scales were empirically tested with student and field samples and found to be related to, but distinct from
the constructs of openness to experience (McCrae and Costa, 1987), modesty (Peterson and Seligman, 2004),
learning goal orientation (VandeWalle, 1997), honesty-humility (Ashton and Lee, 2008), narcissism (Margolis and
Thomas, 1980), and core self-evaluations (Judge, Erez, Bono, and Thoresen, 2003) (Owens, 2009).
Acknowledging similar conditions of rapid change and uncertainty, Weick (2001) argued
that leaders in the twenty-first century will need to allow ―more migration of decisions to those
with the expertise to handle them, and less convergence of decisions on people entitled by rank
to make them‖ (p. 106). However, the leadership literature suggests that many organizational
actors have an implicit theory that leaders do not admit mistakes, do not seek subordinate advice
or approval on issues or decisions, and want his/her own way (Frasier and Lord, 1988; Ensari
and Murphy, 2003). Certainly leaders with such an orientation are a poor fit for organizations in
dynamic, fast-paced industries which tend to be extremely reliant on specialists.
Of course, leaders are not the only participants in organizations who might fail to listen to
and learn from others. Experts of differing specialties, participants from different functions or
divisions, and those who represent yet other perspectives (e.g., different national cultures, labor
vs. management) may resist understanding and learning from one another. Pfeffer and Sutton
(2000) document a ubiquitous tendency for organizational participants to know intellectually
(and generally) what to do, much more than what they actually try to implement. They
discovered that this ―knowing-doing gap‖ often related to the tendency for participants to value
talking more than taking action and looking smart more than learning from mistakes. Trial and
error learning is often rejected for fear of critique and rejection by others. Participants also often
perceived themselves as competitors with others inside the organization more than with external
competitors, leading to less knowledge sharing and collaboration. These individual and
organizational tendencies described by the ―knowing-doing gap‖ seem particularly
counterproductive in a marketplace that is expected to increasingly reward learning and
adaptation (Senge, 2005).
What does all of this have to do with humility? Given the elements of humility reviewed
above, we propose that humility may mitigate the conflicts and organizational problems just
described. Specifically, given its roots in grounded perceptions of shared limits and dignity
(Grenberg, 2005) and the way humility entails acknowledging the strengths of others, we suggest
that humility will enable greater acknowledgment and utilization of specialized expertise and
foster less of an emphasis on hierarchy. Furthermore, organizational participants possessing
humility are a better fit for firms in dynamic environments since they are more likely to admit
their own knowledge gaps, admit past mistakes, genuinely value the expertise of others, and
embrace trial and error learning.
Review of Extant Humility Research
One of the major purposes of this chapter is to outline a research stream for humility in
organizations. In this section, we discuss current and developing theory and research on humility.
Because humility in psychological and organizational studies is still in its early stages, we will
report both published research and preliminary evidence from research in progress.
much has been said and theorized about the importance of humility in organizations, most of
these propositions have not been tested. However, a few examples of recent research hypothesize
and test the relationship between humility and individual performance, prosocial behavior,
positive team environments (psychological safety, cohesion), team performance, and effective
Humility and performance. The usefulness or relevance of any construct within
organizational research is often judged by whether it has a significant impact on performance,
which some consider the core criterion of organizational research (Wall et al. 2004). Though
humility has been theoretically and qualitatively connected with high performance (Collins,
I.e., from doctoral dissertations and peer reviewed conference proceedings.
2005; Vera and Rodriguez-Lopez, 2004), until recently this connection has not been rigorously
tested through empirical study.
Some have hypothesized that humble persons perform at a higher level than less humble
persons. For instance, among college students, implicit humility correlated positively with
academic performance even after narcissism and conscientiousness were statistically controlled
(see Rowatt et al., 2006, Study 2). In related research, Owens (2009b) suggested that humility
would influence performance through the mechanisms of (1) better awareness of strengths and
weaknesses informing decisions about the time and effort one would need to allocate to
accomplish performance related tasks, (2) more attention to and benefitting from the positive
social modeling of others (i.e., enhanced social learning from strong performers), and (3) more
receptivity to feedback leading to adaptability (e.g. taking remedial action) after showings of
poor or mediocre performance. In this study, at the end of the quarter, business students who had
worked together on project teams for over two months rated each of their team members on
humility (using an other-report humility scale developed by Owens, 2009a).
on tests and assignments throughout the quarter represented individual performance. Overall,
humility predicted individual performance beyond the common performance predictors of
conscientiousness (Barrick and Mount, 2001), general mental ability (Wonderlic, 1973; Dodrill,
1983), and generalized self-efficacy (Schwarzer & Jerusalem, 1995). Furthermore, humility was
the strongest predictor of performance improvement over the course of the term and showed a
compensatory effect on performance for those with lower general mental ability. In other words,
students with lower general mental ability performed poorly without humility but well with
In this study, team member ratings of team participation and contribution were also assessed and controlled for to
help rule out explanations that the results were driven by general classroom engagement or interpersonal liking.
In a work context, self-reported honesty-humility of employees predicted job
performance ratings by their supervisors (Johnson, Rowatt, & Petrini, 2010). The significant
relationship between honesty-humility and job performance persisted when conscientiousness
and other personality dimensions were statistically controlled. It should be noted that honesty-
humility predicted job performance among employees providing health care service to
challenging clients. Thus, humility might be especially predictive of job performance in service-
Humility and prosocial behavior. With few exceptions, characteristics such as narcissism,
with its attendant patterns of ―self-aggrandizing arrogant behavior, hostility, entitlement, and
lack of empathy toward others‖ (Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001: p.178) consistently have been found
to be associated with poor interpersonal relating (Vazire & Funder, 2006), conflict, and lower
social acceptance (Paulus, 1998). In contrast, several scholars suggest that humility, which is
considered the conceptual opposite of narcissism and arrogance (Tangney, 2000), will foster
more positive, satisfying interpersonal relating (i.e., Exline et al. 2004). Specifically, where
humility exists, more satisfying interrelating may occur since humility has been associated with
taking the focus off the self and focusing more on others, and acknowledging others‘ strengths
(Tangney, 2000). In support of this idea, clinical psychologists have employed ―humility
training‖ to help patients with overcompensating personality disorders (i.e., overly aggressive,
lacking empathy) to learn to develop more satisfying and lasting interpersonal relationships
(Means, et al., 1990). In this training, humility is explained and offered as an alternative to
assertiveness and is coupled with aggression/ anger control interventions (p. 211).
Humility also appears to be a prosocial quality linked with good citizenship behaviors
like cooperation and helping. Honesty-humility, for example, was found to correlate positively
with cooperation in an economic game (Hilbig & Zettler, 2009). Among college students, self-
reported humility and helping correlated positively, and implicit humility correlated positively
with the amount of time volunteered to help a peer in need (LaBouff, et al., 2010). Also, Exline
and Geyer (2004) found that students who were primed with humility (i.e., they were asked to
write about ―an experience when you felt humble‖) took longer to defect in a prisoner‘s dilemma
game. This evidence for the connection between humility and the prosocial behaviors of helping
and cooperation has important implications for teams.
Humility in teams. Given its characteristics, we propose that humility has significant
relevance in the context of teams. In past research, team members who display characteristics
that are considered the opposite of humility, such as self-enhancement and arrogance, are
punished by team members because of their disruptiveness to team functioning (Anderson et al.
2006; Horowitz et al. 2006). A review of the teams literature yields ample evidence to support
the claim that narcissism, arrogance, self-enhancement, and egocentrism are generally found to
be counterproductive characteristics in teams because of their tendency to inhibit team
functioning and to foster team member incompatibility (see Foushee, et al., 1986; Steiner, 1986).
One of the benefits of teams is the synergy that can occur as individual team member
strengths are combined and as individual limitations are made up for by these strengths (Cannon-
Bowers, Salas, & Converse, 1993). However, if team members do not acknowledge personal
limits, or acknowledge the strengths of other team members, the intended benefits of teams may
To date, we are not aware of published research that examines the impact of humility in
teams. However, an example of unpublished research using 85 student project teams showed a
positive relationship between team member humble behaviors and the emergence of shared team
processes such as task allocation effectiveness, cohesion, efficacy, citizenship behavior, and
psychological safety (Owens and McCornack, 2010). This study also showed a strong, positive
relationship between humility and team performance (the assessed quality of team projects by
judges who were blind to the study‘s purpose), which was fully mediated by team cohesion.
Humility in leadership. Much of the recent attention directed toward humility in
management literature relates to its importance in leadership. Theorists have suggested that
humility is becoming more critical for leaders who direct their organizations in increasingly
dynamic and turbulent environments. For instance, Weick (2001) suggested that the increasing
―unpredictability and unknowability‖ organizations face will require leaders of the twenty-first
century to have ―more humility and less hubris‖ (p. 106).
Humility may be viewed as a characteristic more typical and expected of followers rather
than leaders. Indeed, some may view humility and leadership as oxymoronic since the
prototypical leader often is perceived as being a strong-willed individual who exerts great
influence on his/her subordinates (Ensari & Murphy, 2003). Leadership has long been associated
with the personality characteristics of dominance, aggressiveness, and ascendancy; not the
characteristics one usually associates with a humble leader. However, scholars who have
carefully examined this construct insist that humility does not equate to weakness but rather
requires a ―unique sort of courage‖ (Exline et al. 2004, p. 64) to be willing to be vulnerable in
order to improve oneself and help others.
One group of theorists argued that humility ―is a critical strength for leaders and
organizations possessing it, and a dangerous weakness for those lacking it‖ (Vera & Rodriguez-
Lopez, 2004, p. 393). Past images of leaders who put on a front, who ―fake it till they make it‖
and appear to know all the answers, seem especially outmoded in this new, dynamic
―knowledge economy‖ (Dane & Pratt, 2007, p. 49) where it is becoming increasingly difficult to
―figure it all out at the top‖ (Senge, 1990, p. 7). A growing number of scholars insist that
humility is not incompatible with strong and effective leadership (Dhiman, 2002; Kerfoot, 1998;
Lu, Gilmour, and Kao, 2001, 2004; Reimann, 1995). For example, Weick (2001) insists that for
a leader to humbly admit, ―I don‘t know‖ is a sign of strong rather than weak leadership because
such an action will foster learning, trust, and better direction-taking (p. 105). Admitting areas of
ignorance as a leader and asking for the input of others, Weick argued, ―establishes leader
credibility in an unknowable world…strengthens rather than weakens relationship[s]‖ and
activates follower sensemaking (Weick, 2001, p. 112). Indeed one of the main benefits of leader
humility may be that such leaders act as exemplars to others of how to make sense of an
increasingly uncertain and unpredictable workplace (p. 107). Further, Morris, Brotheridge, and
Urbanski (2005) propose a theoretical model in which leader humility is viewed as an important
characteristic for leadership effectiveness fostering supportiveness, socialized power, and
participation. Kerfoot (1998) also argues the necessity of humility when speaking of leadership
in a dynamic health care context.
Work on humility in leadership remains mostly theoretical at this point. However, we
have discovered a few examples of research on humility in leadership. For instance, in a
qualitative study Reimann (1995) reports humility to be an important characteristic of strategic
leaders who were best able to cope with rapid change. In addition, the results of Collin‘s (2001)
inductive work examining why some companies reach and sustain exceptional performance
showed that humility was one of the most important and pervasive traits possessed by leaders of
these ―Good to Great‖ firms. More specifically, Collins proposes that realizing the highest, most
effective level of leadership (i.e., Level 5 Leadership) entails achieving a ―paradoxical blend of
humility and intense professional will‖ (Collins, 2001, 2005).
In a study of 111 CEO‘s in 105 computer and software firms between 1992 and 2004,
Chatterjee and Hambrick (2007) found that those who were more ―narcissistic‖ were associated
with different firm outcomes than their more humble competitor CEO‘s. The more narcissistic a
CEO, the more he or she tends to ―swing for the fences,‖ to change strategy more often and to
pursue larger and more frequent acquisitions. The performance of the narcissistic CEO‘s was
either much higher or much lower than less narcissistic CEO‘s but their average performance
was not worse. More humble CEO‘s, as measured in this study, were more likely to pursue
incremental improvements and to have less variable performance. These researchers measured
narcissism (which they conceived of as the opposite of humility) using 5 measures: the size of
the CEO's picture in the company's annual report; the number of times a CEO's name appeared in
company news releases; the number of times a CEO referred to singular personal pronouns such
as "I" or "me" in interviews; and two measures of the CEO's pay compared with the next highest-
paid executive. Such measures emphasize self-focus, imply but do not measure an orientation to
others, and fail to capture openness to learning, the principal humility dimensions measured in
many other studies.
More recently, Owens, Rubenstein, and Hekman, (2010) developed a theoretical model
outlining the situational triggers, drivers, consequences, and contingencies of humility in
organizational leadership based on 64 semi-structured interviews with leaders from business,
health care, military, government, non-profit, and educational settings. The model assimilates
Examples of successful executives recognized for their humility include Sam Walton (WalMart), Mary Kay Ash
(Mary Kay), Herb Keller (Southwest), Craig Weatherup (Pepsi Cola Company), Darwin Smith (Kimberly-Clark),
Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA), David Neeleman (JetBlue), and Joe Lee (Darden Restaurants).
from these interviews into propositions about the enablers of developing and
expressing humility in a leadership role, the contingencies which determine the efficacy of
humility in leadership, and the individual and team/unit level consequences of humility in
leadership. Overall, there was a high level of consensus that humility in leadership could be
developed (it is not a static trait) and that leader humility would positively influence performance
through enhanced learning, more comprehensive decision-making, follower empowerment, and
One critical question about the usefulness of studying humility in leadership is whether it
is distinct from other established leadership approaches or styles. To address this question,
preliminary evidence from roughly 1500 employee ratings of their leaders indicates that leader
humility is conceptually distinct
from transformational leadership (MLQ-5X, Bass and Avolio,
1994), charismatic leadership (Conger and Kanungo, 1994), authentic leadership (ALQ;
Walumbwa, et al., 2008), and servant leadership (Liden, Wayne, Zhao, and Henderson, 2008;
Greenleaf and Spears, 2002). The same study showed that leader humility is positively
associated with unit cohesion, experimentation, and learning goal orientation (Owens, 2010,
Possible Disadvantages of Humility
Does humility fit in a volume devoted to extraordinary performance, outcomes, and
processes in organizations? That is, will those who are humble put themselves and their groups
forward enough to excel? Or will they be so realistic in their views of self and others that they
Using conventional guidelines for analyzing qualitative data (i.e., from Miles and Huberman, 1994; Lee, 1999),
transcribed interview responses were content analyzed and coded by independent researchers. The Cohen‘s Kappa
agreement score across independent codings was .82.
Principle components analyses were conducted for each leadership scale and humility. Factors were set so they
were free to vary. No cross loadings were observed between the humility items and all other leadership measures.
Two items from established leadership scales loaded above .40 onto the humility factor.
will fail to take risks and to ―shoot for the stars‖ as the study by Chatterjee and Hambrick (2007)
suggests? While we have made the opposite argument, in the business world, some may view
―softer‖ traits like humility as irrelevant or even counterproductive in an economically-driven,
often cut-throat, competitive marketplace. In this section, we acknowledge some possible
disadvantages of humility and discuss the potential boundary conditions for the usefulness of
humility in organizations.
In the context of leadership, humble leaders are more likely to admit their mistakes or
present themselves as less than perfect. We can imagine conditions in which such humility or
honesty could be problematic. Goffee and Jones (2000) suggest that charismatic leaders should
admit weakness, but only ―selective‖ ones (not fatal flaws) and perhaps ones that might be
considered a strength from another point of view (e.g. ―workaholic‖). However, these seem to
be strategies that humble leaders would dismiss.
In addition, though we believe humility is a very positive trait in organizations, it is
unclear to us whether humility will predict upward movement in an organization. Humble people
might be perceived as unassertive or lacking in initiative. Or they might not be noticed by their
superiors, even though their work is good, because they attribute credit to others and honestly see
themselves as being only partly responsible for successes. This effect may be magnified further
if the peers of humble individuals are engaging in strategic self-enhancement in order to gain
promotions and influence (see Pfeffer and Fong, 2005).
Finally, we also note a potential irony in the way we might study and write about
humility in organizational contexts where this characteristic is likely to be treated instrumentally
and with self-interest. From the Aristotelian point of view, virtues become self-reinforcing as
they are internalized and as their practice creates a sense of self-actualization (personal
fulfillment through acting with excellence, employing one‘s best strengths). Further they would
not be individual character virtues if they were under strong situational control. Rather, they
would merely be the demonstration of a skill of ―situational virtue.‖
In summary, humility is
most virtuous if it is a) practiced to a significant extent in the face of situational opposition
(temptations to be arrogant, self-defensive, etc.); and b) practiced excellently such that it
becomes a ―signature strength‖ that is able to give one a sense of self-mastery and joy in its use.
In this context, we note some important issues in approaches that could be taken in
studying humility and acting on the findings we have reviewed thus far. For example, will an
emphasis on the instrumental benefits of humility lead to organizational training and personal
improvement efforts to ―act humbly‖ that yield neither the sought-for performance benefits nor
the personal character excellence and self-actualization? To what extent will participants in such
training and organizations discount apparently humble behavior? To what extent will participants
who act humbly but with self-interested motives fail to achieve the ―eudaimonia‖ (sense of
mastery and joy) described by Aristotle? That is, the way we study and talk about humility could
tend to ―commoditize‖ it and create a sense that it is a variable to be manipulated more than a
virtue to be developed and internalized for proper motives and across challenging situations.
What Should Future Research Examine?
Since examining humility within the context of organizations is a relatively new effort,
there are many potentially fruitful areas for future research. We will highlight a few areas that we
feel are most important for the immediate progression of this research stream.
We agree with Peterson and Seligman (2004) that humility and other virtues may find varied expression across
situations and that they may also be developed by particular enabling conditions (family, school, mentors, etc.).
However, we are also seeking to discover individual differences that serve as character strengths and that are
relatively consistent across situations. If we are only considering behavior that is to a large extent situationally
determined we miss the element of choice and will that are essential to virtue.
First, future research should examine and compare the agreement of other-report with
implicit self-report measures of humility. It may be that implicit measures of humility might
capture more cognitive aspects of humility while other-report measures might tap more social
aspects of humility. From a predictive validity standpoint, future research should consider
selecting the method of measuring humility based on the nature of the outcome being predicted.
For example, to test whether humility influences cognitive decision-making biases such as
overconfidence and hindsight bias, measuring humility implicitly may be the best approach. For
predicting outcomes like prosocial behavior, leadership dynamics, or team relational processes,
measuring humility via other-report may be the best approach.
Second, future research should examine the origins or antecedents of humility. As
previously suggested, humility might stem from innate motivations or experiences or both. For
instance, humility has been proposed to be driven by a deeply held belief in personal malleability
(i.e., an incremental implicit theory of the self, Owens, 2009a; see also Dweck 1999). Humility
may also be motivated by the ―drive to learn‖ which has been identified as one of the ―four
innate drives‖ along with the drive to acquire, the drive to bond, and the drive to defend
(Lawrence and Nohria, 2002, p. 5). Aside from innate needs or implicit theories, scholars have
also suggested that humility may stem from past experiences of secure relational attachments,
reality-based feedback about one‘s strengths and weaknesses, and not to have extreme emphasis
placed on performance in one‘s past school (and perhaps work) experience (Exline et al., 2004).
Other suggested antecedents include significant life reversals, having humble mentors (Collins,
2001), and religiosity (Tangney, 2000).
The innate motivations and experiential antecedents of humility, if understood, would
enable organizations to better promote this characteristic and/or create a work environment
where humility can thrive. More fully understanding the antecedents of humility will also help to
better inform organizations how to select for or develop this attribute in employees and leaders.
Third, given increased interest in organizational virtues in general (Cameron, Dutton, and
Quinn, 2003), future research should examine the interaction between humility and other virtues.
Aristotle‘s Golden Mean perspective suggests that virtues taken to an extreme can become vices.
As a ―temperance virtue‖ that helps to guard against excess (Park and Peterson, 2003), some
have suggested that humility may be an important ―balancer‖ of other positive characteristics or
virtues. For example, Vera and Rodriguez-Lopez suggest that ―courage without humility might
become rashness‖ (2003 p. 397). In addition, since it has been suggested that humility is
foundational to most other virtues (Grenberg, 2005), future research should also address the
potential connections between humility and other virtues such as forgiveness, gratitude, integrity,
honesty, and empathy.
Fourth, it may also be meaningful to understand humility in teams within the framework
of existing team development models. For instance, with reference to the punctuated equilibrium
model (Gersick, 1988), future research might test whether teams with more humility may be
quicker to recognize and break out of the initial inertia phase and transition to more effective
team patterns (i.e., would ―punctuate‖ more quickly). As companies continue to organize around
teams, understanding the factors that contribute to quicker and more effective team adaptability
and learning seems especially important in an increasingly dynamic, unpredictable, and
information-rich workplace (see Kim & Mauborgne, 1998).
Fifth, in the domain of leadership, humility may also be ―credited‖ differently depending
on the role relationship. For example, what peers may view as humility, bosses may view as
weakness, and subordinates may view as pandering. Future research should empirically address
whether humility perceptions systematically differ across role relationships and whether the
proposed relational outcomes associated with humility also differ by roles (i.e., whether humility
is more strongly related to trust and loyalty for peers than for subordinates).
Understanding the relationship between leader humility and other established leadership
approaches may be important to identifying where leader humility might supplement or provide
elaborative insight to existing leadership models and thought. For instance, Morris et al. (2005)
suggested that humility may be the differentiator between perceptions of genuine and pseudo-
transformational leadership. Such propositions still need to be tested. Also, the degree and
direction to which humility is related to and interacts with other positive leadership approaches,
such as servant, authentic, and charismatic leadership, might also be important areas to explore
in the future.
Sixth, future research should examine humility as an organizational characteristic. Vera
and Rodriguez-Lopez (2004) write about organizational humility and share qualitative insights
from a ―humble organization.‖ However, more needs to be understood about how to instill
humility in organizational processes and culture and how these organizational characteristics
might enable the development of individual humility. Alisdair MacIntyre (1984) presents a neo-
Aristotelian perspective on the development and practice of virtues that suggests some of the
organizational elements that might be important to the development of organizational support for
virtues. He argues that the Greek conception of virtues was that they were learned and practiced
in community and that without such community support and practice excellence in virtues cannot
be achieved. He posits that such communities make it clear ―of what narrative we are a part.‖
That master narrative identifies and illustrates the community‘s virtues and helps community
members define and practice excellence in those virtues. Moore‘s (2002) analysis of MacIntyre
suggests that this perspective has relevance for modern work organizations if they can establish
communities of practice around particular virtues to become excellent in their practice and if
they can orient the particular virtues to addressing the demands of external stakeholders (who are
not likely to understand or value such virtues per se). Collins‘ (2001) qualitative and inductive
work may also point to organization-level approaches that foster the development of humility
along with other virtues and are thus more likely to facilitate extraordinary organizational and
Such contributions raise a number of possibilities and questions. First, we could consider
the organization as a context for the development of humility in participants and ask: What
organizational contexts are most and least conducive to the development of humility in
participants? Next, we might consider how such organizational contexts are developed. Further,
we could consider the extent to which organizational contexts that are composed of high
proportions of humble participants and that provide a refining host for learning and practicing the
virtue of humility facilitate accomplishing extraordinary outcomes. In the spirit of the
psychological and philosophical interests in character virtues and strengths (see Peterson and
Seligman, 2004), we could ask whether the adoption and practice of classic virtues (including
humility) is conducive to ―the good life‖ of individuals as well as to overall organizational
performance or whether these pursuits are potentially in conflict with one another (see Moore
and Beadle, 2006).
In this chapter we made a case for the growing importance of humility within
organizational contexts. Increasingly uncertain and dynamic work environments make humility
not only relevant but requisite for success in today‘s work world offering ―strategic value for
firms by furnishing organizational members with a realistic perspective on themselves, the firm,
and the environment‖ (Vera and Rodriguez-Lopez, 2004, p. 393). We hope the points discussed
in this chapter spur further interest in humility and enable further examination of this ―classical
source of strength‖ (Tangney, 2000, 70) within an organizational context.
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