When it comes to leadership, many of us never experience – in our own leaders –  the “best practices” we read about in business journals and online.

This holds especially true in terms of humility; indeed, the label “humble leader” to some of us sounds like an oxymoron.

Humility in the workplace occurs when a leader is dependent on another person for success, and accepts help (assistance, knowledge or skills) without ego. Humility in this form calls on a leader to periodically “step down” into an inferior position to gain information from someone lower down the totem pole.

Traditional leaders believe they must sacrifice humility for ambition in order to be successful

Ongoing research tells us that humble and respectful leaders are not only nicer to work with, but also more successful at driving business results. This led Bill Taylor, Co-Founder of Fast Company and contributor to Harvard Business Review, to ask: “In the face of so much evidence that humble leaders do, in fact, outperform arrogant leaders, why is it so hard for leaders at every level to check their egos at the office door?”

The answer, of course, is multilayered. Some of the top-cited explanations from the experts include:

  • Traditional leaders believe they must sacrifice humility for ambition in order to be successful
  • Traditional organizations are competition-centric; not only are companies pitted against one another, but employees compete amongst themselves for visibility, raises, promotions and projects
  • Younger generations still define authority and power as “telling others what to do”
In general, traditional leaders fear that they will appear soft and unprepared when challenges arise. Thankfully, research is shifting our understanding: “The most effective business leaders don’t pretend to have all the answers…They understand that their job is to get the best ideas from the right people.” If the goal of leaders is to connect with and pull from a team of strong followers, then humility is a leadership imperative.

Despite the appeal of the Ivory Tower, we as leaders and future-leaders must answer Bill Taylor’s questions for ourselves: “Are we confident enough to stay humble? Are we strong enough to admit we don’t have all the answers?”