Are Humble Leaders Good Leaders?

© 2016 Richard McKnight

© 2016 Richard McKnight

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2016 McKnight-Kaney.


  1. The person who decides quickly with little or no data, makes his or her case persuasively, is willing to distort the facts a bit to win, and suffers no self-doubt, or
  2. The person who says, “I'm not entirely certain. Let's think it through together”?

Hang on to your answer. Here's another question: What percentage of successful CEOs, have serious self-doubts at times?

These questions came up for me recently when I was reading a book on happiness by Matthieu Ricard, called, Happiness: A Guide to Life’s Most Important Skill.

Ricard carries a moniker that he doesn’t like: The happiest man in the world. He doesn’t like it because as a Buddhist monk for 35 years, he does not brag. Ricard was, among other monks, the subject of a laboratory study on the physiology of happiness. He was best at lighting up the part of the brain most associated with happiness. During the study, researchers got the monks meditating and then fired a gun next to their head. Ricard did not flinch. (The sound was produced by a loudspeaker.)

I read Ricard's book because I've been writing a book myself on subject that pertain to happiness. Ricard says that happiness is a skill.

In his book, Ricard has a whole chapter on humility and its role in happiness. I was raised to be humble, but my training had nothing to do with a quest for happiness; it is what a boy growing up in Montana was told he should feel.

Maybe the questions above aren’t a good proxy for humility, but the whole idea of the connection of humility and leadership sent me to doing some very “serious research”: I went to the website and searched on the terms leadership and humility. Care to guess how many times HBR has published something on the subject? 35. I was surprised, too.

HBR lists as a bestseller Jim Collins's article “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve.” The website says this as a summary of the article: “The most powerfully transformative executives possess a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional will. They are timid and ferocious. Shy and fearless. They are rare—and unstoppable.”

Somehow, it seems to me that a truly humble leader would never dream of describing him or herself this way (!), but I get the point: these leaders might be humble but they are determined and action-biased; they get things done. But how they get things done matters, too.

I also did a Google search and found many academic studies exploring the leadership-humility connection. Most authors note that in this era of the celebrity CEO, it is easy to overlook the power of humility. So taken are we with its opposite that phrases like like the following show up in nearly every article: “Humility may be a virtue, but it's also a competitive advantage.” If we’ve thought about humility at all, most of us have an approach-avoidance reaction to the term.

Here is Matthieu Ricard: “Humility is a forgotten quality of the contemporary world, the theater of seeming. Magazines are constantly giving advice about how to 'affirm' yourself, 'make an impression,' 'be beautiful' — to seem instead of be.” Ricard points out that when busy seeming, we stop learning. And learning is one of the key attributes of the most effective leaders. No humility, no learning. 

Some Buddhists (those of the Zen persuasion) speak convincingly about the power of “the beginner's mind.” For them, and one suspects for Collins’s humble leaders, this is where the true power is.

Now, back to the questions that open this blog about who the better leader is: the cocksure aggressive person or the circumspect one? Another way to pose the question is who is which one has stopped learning? This would separate the best from the worst.

What do you think? Perhaps it’s helpful to know that in nearly every biography ever written about famous leaders, including Lincoln, Give-Them-Hell Harry Truman, LBJ, Eisenhower, even Douglas MacArthur, one inevitably finds periods of self-doubt. Where one does not find humility is among the worst leaders. I wonder if a certain political candidate with odd hair has any self-doubt. I doubt it.