Is humble leadership the new intelligence?

Humble Leadership

“Humble leadership” might seem like one of the biggest oxymoron phrases since “jumbo shrimp,” and that’s potentially true. Although all leadership is really about soft skills, and we all know that without humility people are unable to learn, humble leadership is still fairly rare. We’ve got more bad, bell-ringing managers clogging up companies to a level where we don’t even know what to do. Gallup has said 82 percent of managers end up as the wrong hire. Bad leadership costs companies $144,000 per day. Crappy middle management costs the U.S. $3 trillion/year. These are all very real, very sad things about the state of leadership in America (and the world). Humble leadership ain’t walking through that door.

Maybe it should, though.

Humble leadership and some UVA research

Here’s an article from UVA on “the organization of the future.” It’s long, and there are a lot of psychological theories in there. All told, it’s fairly interesting stuff.

If you get down to the end of the article, it says that it’s adapted from a book called Humility Is The New Smart. Hmmm.

Now, here’s my one major caveat here: a lot of us think artificial intelligence and robots and all that are coming for a good chunk of jobs. If that’s true, and it’s true faster than we think (25 years?), then some of these discussions about “the organization of the future” are BS. It will barely have people! So let’s stop talking about people issues!

That said, 25 years is a long time and we’ve got generations to manage in and out before then.

Humble leadership and other BS leadership terms

There’s stuff like “charismatic leadership.” Another term would be “dynamic leadership.” We’ve all heard the old doozy of “servant leadership.”

To most guys (still predominantly men) who come to run companies, these terms mean absolutely nothing. “A good leader” to them is “someone who makes money.” That’s it. Plain and simple. If you belittle everyone under you 24 hours/day for an entire year but your “numbers” are healthy, you are a good leader.

So do we need more humble leadership? Of course. A lack of humility is usually inversely associated with an ability to learn and grow. The problem? As you get more money/power/influence (i.e. “leadership”), traits like empathy and humility decline. So it’s a tough circle. We need humble leadership, but to get there the only path is self-awareness. That’s not very common in humans.

Can we get more humble leadership?

Yes — but only in individuals capable of it, and only in businesses that understand a “VUCA” climate means ideas, concepts, and priorities are always shifting. Having an arrogant asshole at the helm in constant-priority-shift world is bad. But having some humble leadership up in there? Very good. That said, however, the individual has to be capable of it — see the 82 percent stat above — and the organization has to care about who is leading, not just what the returns say. That’s not a common intersection.


I personally believe humble leadership is a new form of intelligence. I don’t really care about your MBA from Wharton if you can’t adapt to a new technology or way of thinking pretty quickly. And if you mostly bury your head in the sand re: anything new, that’s not effective leadership for the modern age, IMHO. Humble leadership, where an individual grows and learns from interaction/observation/admitting their flaws, should be normative today. Unfortunately, it’s not.

What else would you add on humble leadership?

My name is Ted Bauer. I blog a lot, on stuff like humble leadership and other topics, and I also work as a freelancer for your writing and marketing needs.

Ted Bauer


  1. Hi Ted, I agree that approaching people with humility, especially those you lead, is a key for the new, healthy,, “intelligent” professional.

  2. Thanks Ted. I’d add that authenticity has to go right along side being able to get out of your way. It’s fine to take classes and use buzzwords but, quite another thing to express genuine care for those you work with and their ideas.

    Here’s to these traits becoming the norm in the workplace!

  3. Hi Ted, great article! With humility follows the wisdom to lead. I will like to see a research on the relationship between humility leadership and transformational leadership. Another good research will be the mediating role of humility in the relationship between leadership and performance. Humility leadership may very well align with the concept of servant leadership. However, like you said, the various buzzwords are irrelevant. We need a leader who is able to make money and be humble at the same time.

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