“Without humility, you are unable to learn.” This is a message to managers in businesses.

Let’s say you really like football, up to the point that you consider the best football players to be “warriors” and the like. You view the whole thing as a complex allegory for war, so the most successful coaches are true “generals” and real leaders, and goddamn it, they don’t take anything from anyone. No sissy stuff here! Only real men need apply! Now let’s say you think that’s how you need to roll at work — if I’m a general, the feeling goes, people shall follow me, and ’twill be glorious — and you come in blazing like gangbusters. Maybe that’s a bad idea.

See, you might put yourself in the dreaded 82 percent, but more importantly, we now seem to have a clearer research-led understanding that humility is essential to being a good leader. While it seems counter-intuitive to some — being a hard-ass and a warrior makes you a good leader, right? Not caring for others! — in reality it makes a lot of sense. At most jobs, from blue-collar to white-collar office, you need to achieve things within team structures. You can get more out of a team if they’re invested in you, and you can do that by legitimately connecting with them where they’re at (an aspect of humility, but also an aspect of “good listening,” which is another often-rare skill). Catalyst did a study involving 1,500 employees in six different countries and found these traits across all six — and remember, some of these countries were very different in their basic cultural/political set-up (yet these traits resonated in their workplaces):

  • The more included employees felt, the more innovative they reported being in their jobs.
  • The more included employees felt, the more they reported engaging in team citizenship behaviors—going above and beyond the “call of duty” to help other team members and meet workgroup objectives.
  • Perceiving similarities with coworkers engendered a feeling of belongingness while perceiving differences led to feelings of uniqueness.

This kinda ties to something I heard in a job interview this week. I was interviewing for this gig and asked the hiring manager about the culture there — I realize that’s an amorphous blob of a word, and I realize hiring managers are always (likely) going to pull out the right buzzwords and talk about Nerf guns in the office and stuff — and he said something interesting. He was talking about how the point of life, broadly, is to laugh and love and be around others you enjoy — that’s what you’re sad about at the end — but an office is almost the inverse of that many times. Head down, look at your keyboard, head to your meetings. He was trying to change that (this seems really cool, but sadly I doubt I get this job), and that seems similar to some of the above findings. Basically, you want to create an inclusive place where mistakes are a learning experience, not a dagger over your head for firing. In fact, there’s this via HBR:

  • Share your mistakes as teachable moments. When leaders showcase their own personal growth, they legitimize the growth and learning of others; by admitting to their own imperfections, they make it okay for others to be fallible, too. We also tend to connect with people who share their imperfections and foibles—they appear more “human,” more like us. Particularly in diverse workgroups, displays of humility may help to remind group members of their common humanity and shared objectives.

The bigger bottom line here is this, and it’s something I’ve talked about a couple of times on this blog before: for years, most nations’ economies were set up as straight bottom-line, revenue-focused initiatives (and they should be), but as work became more complex (more partners) but also easier (more tools to do your job) and generations grew up with more wealth and knowledge, the real competitive advantage might be shifting back from “lowest cost of production” to “really understanding what makes your employees tick.” Can HR shift too? That’s a good question. But for now, remember this: humility is important in leaders, despite what you may seem to observe from sports and action movies. Hell, Tony Dungy comes from football and even he gets that!

Ted Bauer