Willing to Grow: Leader Humility in Asia

HCLI Research
Published 18 March 2015

Is humility in an Asian leader a sign of strength or weakness? HCLI summarises research conducted with co-authors Burak Oc (Bocconi University), Gary Greguras (Singapore Management University), Michael Bashshur (Singapore Management University), and James Diefendorff (Akron University) on the nature of leader humility and its importance in an Asian context.

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership” – Nelson Mandela

When you think about the great business leaders of our time, larger-than-life, charismatic figures like Steve Jobs or Jack Welch typically come to mind. Adjectives like decisive, visionary and sure-footed are lauded as key differential traits among leaders in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world of business. However, there is a growing body of research indicating that leaders who take time to weigh their options, listen to the opinions of others and accept responsibility for their mistakes gain a competitive advantage for their organisations and have better relationships with colleagues. While these two sets of behaviours – roughly defined as being decisive or consultative – are not mutually exclusive, most leaders demonstrate a preference for one or the other. Those who tend to exhibit consultative behaviours are more likely to be humble leaders.

Although humility is described as a virtue in most major religions and in countless philosophies from Stoicism to Confucianism, there has been surprisingly little systematic study of its importance in organisations or even how it is defined. What research that has been done has mainly been conducted in the West, and does not necessarily shed light on leader humility in Asia.

Important questions remain. Do humble leaders in the West behave the same as humble leaders in Asia? Is humble leadership more important or effective in Asia? The answers have vital implications as the business landscape becomes more globalised and multicultural.

How Leader Humility Operates in the West

The Oxford English Dictionary defines humility as the “quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance” and it is considered synonymous with “lowliness, meekness and submissiveness”. While this may mirror common definitions of humility, most research on the topic defines it differently.

Rather than implying self deprecation, humility involves a willingness to try to accurately view oneself and an awareness of the fact that no one is perfect. In this context, humble people are viewed as being more open-minded and willing to admit and learn from their mistakes. As such, humility does not devalue one’s own strengths and accomplishments, but is an accurate recognition of the strengths and accomplishments of oneself and others.

Within this more positive perspective, there seems to be some consensus that humility should at least consist of:

  1. Self-awareness (or an accurate view of oneself);
  2. Teachability (the willingness to admit and learn from mistakes); and
  3. An appreciation of others (either the specific strengths of others or the fact that others represent some larger whole)

Using this framework of behaviours, research has shown the effectiveness of humble leadership in organizational settings. Some studies have shown that, because humble leaders are characterised by their openness to new paradigms and a willingness to learn from others, they are better able to understand and react to external opportunities and threats. Humble leaders also model for followers how to be learning oriented, accept feedback, adapt and grow. The behaviour of humble leaders can be seen to create a culture of humility and lead to better performance within the organisation.

Leaders who are humble and admit ignorance foster stronger relationships and follower trust, as this style of leadership is perceived as especially honest.

Interpersonally, leaders who are humble and admit ignorance foster stronger relationships and follower trust, as this style of leadership is perceived as especially honest. Researchers have also argued that humble leaders, due to their appreciation of others and accurate appraisal of their own strengths and weaknesses, are more likely to be supportive of others in the workplace and to engage in participative leadership. This improves the working relationship between leader and followers, which increases employee engagement and job satisfaction, and decreases turnover.

However, given that most of this research has been conducted in the West, we set out to define an Asian (specifically, Singaporean) conceptualisation of leader humility and answer the question of whether humility manifests itself differently in an Asian culture.

An Asian Conceptualisation of Leader Humility

It seems reasonable to expect that Asian cultures, because they are more collectivistic, have a more natural inclination towards humility. In turn, this should presumably make individuals and leaders more sensitive to the wider world and their place in it.

The general belief that there is a greater affinity towards humility in Asia may be due to the dominance of Chinese culture across much of Asia Pacific. Humility is a central tenet of Chinese culture and is a celebrated virtue in both Buddhist and Taoist teachings. For Chinese scholars, humility includes additional dimensions, including “transcendence”, or accepting one’s insignificant place in the universe, and “showing courtesy”, or the importance of respecting others. From a Buddhist or Taoist perspective, humility is more about a losing of the self so that one can connect to a larger reality. Dimensions like these do not seem to be well represented or defined in Western conceptualisations of humility.

A 2005 study, which interviewed several prominent CEOs in Hong Kong, found that Chinese culture exercised considerable influence on the management styles of CEOs. These CEOs all reported practicing a style of leadership that was partly infused with Confucian doctrines of benevolence, harmony, learning, loyalty, righteousness and humility. Of all these values, humility was the only value that was universally endorsed by these leaders – regardless of industry – as integral to their leadership style.

To see how Asians define leader humility, Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI) partnered with professors studying leader humility to survey 288 Singaporean leaders and asked them to describe the behaviours that humble leaders exhibit. We also conducted semi-structured interviews with 23 Singaporeans who were either full-time MBA students, part-time PhD of General Management students (who were also working as executive-level managers as they completed their PhDs), or who were working full time. Based on the survey and interviews, we identified nine basic categories of humble leader behaviours:

1. Having an accurate view of self

This refers to having an accurate perception of one’s abilities, achievements and limitations. For instance, a humble leader is one who realises that no one can know everything, recognises his or her strengths and weaknesses, and acknowledges these strengths and weaknesses. Having an accurate view of self does not mean a devaluation of one’s capabilities or accomplishments, simply a correct assessment of them.

2. Recognising follower strengths and achievements

Humble leaders are aware of the weaknesses and strengths of their followers and are able to formulate strategies based on those characteristics. Humble leaders appreciate the contributions of their followers and compliment them when appropriate.

3. Modelling teachability and being correctable

Leaders who model teachability seek input from followers on task-related issues, show a willingness to listen to constructive feedback, and keep an open mind. In addition, being correctable involves a willingness to consider different ideas and criticisms and making necessary changes incorporating those ideas and critiques.

4. Leading by example

A humble leader demonstrates the necessary knowledge and skills to perform a certain task that the team is performing and is willing to show followers how to do it when necessary. The leader is able to “get in the trenches”. Humble leaders engage in this behaviour in an instructive – rather than showy – manner.

5. Showing modesty

Humble leaders are perceived as maintaining a low profile and refraining from being arrogant despite their successes. A humble leader lets their followers shine and does not seek the spotlight.

6. Working together for the collective good

Humble leaders work with all employees to achieve a common goal. They are willing to “sweat alongside their people” and are more other-oriented than self-oriented. They prioritise the interests of their followers.

7. Empathy and approachability

Humble leaders show consideration and empathy towards their followers. A humble leader is someone who understands the employees’ emotional level, intelligence level and family background. Based on this information, the leader then tailors tasks and communication styles to match. Humble leaders also make themselves approachable by being friendly to others.

8. Showing mutual respect and fairness

Leader humility involves a leader treating followers with respect, making impartial decisions, and being fair in their treatment of followers.

9. Mentoring and coaching

Humble leaders coach, mentor and advise. The influence of a humble leader is through mentorship, guidance, and empowerment.

Our findings indicate that when Singaporeans define leader humility, they also list the three basic aspects of Western humility: having an accurate view of self, recognising follower strengths and achievements, and modelling teachability. However, it appears that the Asian conceptualization of leader humility is also more complex and multifaceted than Western definitions, given the additional six dimensions we identified.

But, does this mean humility is an important trait for leaders in Asia?

Humility: Bridging Hierarchical Distance

In our interviews, many Singaporeans indicated that humility is more of an Asian value and thus more expected for Asian leaders. For example, one participant expressed the general sentiment by stating, “My view is that humility as a quality, as an attribute, is not as highly valued [in the West].”

Humility may be more valued by Asian leaders because it enables them to break down hierarchical barriers and forge better working relationships with subordinates. This may be more important in Asia because of the commonly held value of ‘power distance’.

This concept of social hierarchy refers to the extent that people perceive differences between social or hierarchical classes as unavoidable, legitimate or functional. Those who emphasise power distance generally keep their distance from their superiors and do not or initiate meaningful social exchanges or interactions. This results in low-quality leader member exchange (LMX) – a theory of leadership that focuses on the two-way relationship between supervisors and subordinates.

HCLI sought to test whether humility was more effective at developing high-quality working relationships with employees who held high power distance values – those people who placed greater emphasis on the differences between those on different hierarchical levels. Some of our participants indicated that leader humility is important in Asia because subordinates with high power distance are more reluctant to speak up. “Sometimes people are not so forthright in showing their displeasure [in Asia], or articulating things that they are not pleased about. They keep it to themselves,” said one participant. “But humble leaders are able to engage them and assure them that whatever they say will be treated very objectively.”

To test this, we surveyed a group of 270 people working and living in Singapore. The majority were Singaporean, but the sample also included people from several other Asian and Western countries. We measured participant’s power distance values, perception of their leader’s humility their level of LMX and their overall job satisfaction.

The results confirmed our expectations. The correlation between leader humility, LMX and job satisfaction of employees was positive for the entirety of the sample, but the effect was stronger for those with high power distance values.

These findings reveal that leader humility is a more effective tool for developing relationships with employees and makes them more satisfied at work when the follower has high power distance. Humble leaders are happy to cross hierarchical boundaries, which high power distance followers are reluctant to cross. This makes those followers more comfortable in voicing their opinions.

Implications for a Cross-cultural, Globalised Workplace

The research conducted on leader humility thus far suggests that it is an effective trait for developing oneself and for building better relationships with others in the workplace. Humble leaders are open to revising their assumptions, their ways of leading, and even how they identify themselves. These are important characteristics for leaders operating in the high growth, ever-changing markets of Asia.

Similarly, as Asian companies look to become increasingly innovative, a level of humility is needed in leaders. Asian leaders must be able to demonstrate to their followers how to be open-minded and consider the perspectives of others. Given that humble leaders lead by example, these behaviours should act as a guide and help create a healthy culture of humility across the organisation.

Western organisations looking to expand in Asia should be particularly careful to select humble leaders for their operations. As our research indicates, leader humility is especially important for developing high-quality relationships with high power distance followers and improving their satisfaction and engagement with the job. Given that power distance is often emphasised in Asia, organisations should select leaders who have demonstrated humility to lead operations in the region.

It is also important for Western companies to note that humility in Asia may be expressed differently than it is in the West. Our research indicates that an Asia definition of humility is likely to be more complex and multifaceted. It is likely to incorporate humanistic behaviours like empathy and showing respect and collectivistic behaviours such as working together for the common good and mentoring.

More research is needed to clarify whether leader humility can be detrimental under certain conditions. However, our current state of knowledge indicates that it is a healthy and effective trait that helps leaders to model to followers how to adapt and grow. Although it appears to be effective regardless of culture, our data indicates that it is an especially important virtue in Asia.

This article was first published in HQ Asia (Print) Issue 08 (2014).

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