Bradley Owens and co-author David Hekman, assistant professor of management at the Lubar School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, asked 16 CEOs, 20 mid-level leaders and 19 front-line leaders to describe in detail how humble leaders operate in the workplace and how a humble leader behaves differently than a non-humble leader.
Although the leaders were from vastly different organizations like military, manufacturing, health care, financial services, retailing and religious, they all agreed that the essence of leader humility involves modelling to followers how to grow.
"Growing and learning often involves failure and can be embarrassing," Owens said.
"But leaders who can overcome their fears and broadcast their feelings as they work through the messy internal growth process will be viewed more favourably by their followers. They also will legitimise their followers' own growth journeys and will have higher-performing organizations," he said.
The researchers found that such leaders model how to be effectively human rather than superhuman and legitimize "becoming" rather than "pretending".
However, the study also found that some humble leaders were more effective than others.
Humble leaders who were young, nonwhite or female were reported as having to constantly prove their competence to followers, making their humble behaviors both more expected and less valued. However, humble leaders who were experienced white males were reported as reaping large benefits from humbly admitting mistakes, praising followers and trying to learn.
In contrast, female leaders often feel they are expected to show more humility than their male counterparts, but then they have their competence called into question when they do show humility.
"Our results suggest that female leaders often experience a 'double bind.
"They are expected to be strong leaders and humble females at the same time," he said.
The study will be published in the Academy of Management Journal.