24 Human Resource Executive®
WORDS OF AUTHORITY
Forget Charisma, Look for
Humility in a Leader
By Allison Howell, Global Brand Strategist, Hogan Assessment Systems
The existing paradigm in the business world holds that successful CEOs are ambitious,
result-oriented, individualistic and,
above all, charismatic. The rise of
agency theory1, or the notion that
incentivizing managers should
improve shareholder returns, put
greater emphasis on the need to
hire leaders that appear leader-like.
Unfortunately, conventional wisdom
of what a leader looks like is, quite
Charisma is a very attractive
characteristic in a leader. Yet, when
promoted, these individuals create
chaos and ruin for their organizations.
Humility, rather, is a much better
indicator of leadership success. Jim
Collins, renowned author of Good
to Great, conducted extensive
research on organizational success.
His work clearly demonstrated that
companies led by modest managers
consistently outperformed their
competitors and tended to be the
dominant players in their sectors.
Moreover, humble leaders tend to
stay at their organizations longer than
their arrogant counterparts, and their
companies continue to perform well
even after they leave because humble
leaders often ensure a succession plan
before they depart. 2
The Problem with Charisma
Organizations tend to be good
at identifying people who “look”
like leaders. Individuals who seem
confident, bright, charismatic,
interesting and politically savvy tend
to get earmarked for promotion.
Personality assessments show
that charismatic leaders rank
highly on measurements of self-
confidence (bold), dramatic flair
(colorful), readiness to test the limits
(mischievous) and expansive visionary
thinking (imaginative). 3 These leaders
know what it takes to get ahead and
get noticed, and they strategically
cater to individuals and audiences
who can offer them power, influence,
status or access to resources.
While these individuals are highly
interpersonally savvy and excellent
self-promoters, they often lack basic
leadership and management skills.
Although some charisma can be
beneficial, it often leads to lower
levels of leadership effectiveness.
One possible explanation is that
highly charismatic leaders may be
more strategically ambitious but less
effective at the day-to-day operations.
Emergent (read: charismatic) leaders,
or individuals who stand out from
the crowd, get promoted because
they spend their time politicking and
networking—trying to please their
bosses by managing up rather than
being concerned with those working
Emergent leaders also create a
culture of competition, ambition and
narcissism. Leaders like people like
themselves, so senior leaders are
more likely to choose successors
who best reflect the status quo. Of
course, competition and ambition
can be positive qualities in the
business world, but not if it comes at
the expense of actual hard work.
Humility Breeds Effectiveness
Whereas charismatic leaders tend
to focus on personal advancement,
humble leaders tend to focus on
team performance and guiding
their employees. Effective leaders
are more modest; they are willing
to admit mistakes, share credit and
learn from others. Higher levels of
humility also lead to higher rates
of employee engagement, more
job satisfaction and lower rates of
turnover. 4 To be clear, humility does
not imply the absence of ego or
ambition. Rather, humble leaders are
better able to channel their ambition
back into the organization, rather
than use it for personal gain.
Humility is broadly defined as
1) self-awareness, 2) appreciating
others’ strengths and contributions
and 3) openness to new ideas
and feedback regarding one’s
performance. Leaders who are humble
have a better grasp of organizational
needs and make better-informed
decisions about task performance.
They are also better able to ask
for help than their charismatic
counterparts. What’s more is that
humble leaders help to foster a culture
of development with their employees
by legitimizing learning and personal
development. 5 Humility also
encourages cultures of openness, trust
and recognition, which are important
precursors to learning. 6
Dig Deeper to Identify Humble
The challenge in hiring and
developing strong leaders is in their
identification. Charismatic, or highly
emergent, leaders easily stand out
from the crowd, and their likability
masks more important characteristics
of performance. Humble, and typically
more effective, leaders may fly under
the radar and be passed over for
hiring or promoting. Building selection
and development programs that
overcome personal biases and focus
on objective indicators of success
can help identify these low flyers.
Organizations can benefit from the
use of psychometric testing and
360-degree evaluation to counteract
political factors by developing a
data-driven approach that ensures
organizations recognize and promote
those who will be effective and
1 Hambrick, D. C. & Wowak, A. J. (2012). Whom do we want as our business leaders: How changes in the corporate milieu have brought about
a new breed of CEO. In Joan Enric Ricard Costa & Josep Maria Rosanas Marti (Eds.), Toward a new theory of the firm. Bilbao Fundacion: BBVA.
2 Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York: Harper Collins.
3 Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Hofmans, J., Kaiser, R. B., & De Fruyt, F. (2018). The double-edged sword of leader charisma: Understanding the
curvilinear relationship between charismatic personality and leader effectiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114, 110-130.
4 Bradley P. Owens, Michael D. Johnson, Terence R. Mitchell (2013). Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams,
and Leadership. Organization Science 24( 5):1517-1538.
5 Owens BP, Hekman DR (2012). Modeling how to grow: An inductive examination of humble leader behaviors, contingencies, and outcomes.
Acad. Management J. 55( 4):787–818.
6 Bunderson JS, Sutcliffe KM (2003). Management team learning orientation and business unit performance. J. Appl. Psych. 88( 3):552–560.