Humility is the key to effective leadership, study concludes

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Being a leader can be like walking a tightrope. You don’t want to seem unapproachable, but you can’t be everyone’s best friend either. Now, researchers from The Ohio State University find that when it comes to leadership, a little bit of modesty can go a long way.

Their study finds “humble” leaders of teaching groups helped improve professionalism and collaboration among team members. Conducted in China, this project focused on the Chinese equivalent of professional learning communities (PLCs), or a group of educators who meet on a regular basis to collaborate and share educational expertise.

Study authors found that teachers in these Chinese PLCs were much more willing to open up and share their personal knowledge and expertise when they rated their PLC leaders as having high levels of humility.

According to the research team, people are more comfortable expressing themselves around humble leaders because it feels psychologically safer to take risks.

“A little humility on the part of leaders goes a long way in helping groups be more productive and collaborative,” says study co-author Roger Goddard, an Ohio State professor of educational studies, in a university release. “When people feel their leader admits mistakes and is open to learning from others, everyone contributes more and makes these groups more effective.”

Humble leaders inspire others to share more

Prof. Goddard conducted this research with Yun Qu of Beijing Normal University in China and Jinjie Zhu, a doctoral student in education at Ohio State.

PLCs, in the U.S. and numerous other nations, attempt to promote professional development through collaborative discussion. Teachers get together and share their best practices and what they have learned through their experiences in the classroom.

Teachers can feel fairly isolated in the classroom,” Prof. Goddard adds. “PLCs help teachers build a sense of community and learn from each other about how to improve classroom instruction.”

A teaching research group (TRG) is the Chinese equivalent of a PLC. The leaders of TRGs are usually experienced teachers who are not traditional administrators. However, TRG leaders do act as supervisors and coordinators, in addition to engaging with teacher evaluations, lesson planning, and teacher selection.

This project encompassed 537 teachers across 238 TRGs from numerous Chinese schools, both urban and rural.

Teachers rated TRG leaders according to three dimensions of humility: willingness to view themselves accurately (admitting when they’re wrong), appreciation of others’ strengths, and teachability (being open to other teachers’ advice). The ensuing results indicate that teachers who rated their TRG leaders as very humble were more likely to share their knowledge and expertise during TRG meetings.

“The whole point of these groups is for teachers to share their knowledge, so the fact that humble leaders inspired individuals in their groups to be more willing to do this is very significant,” Prof. Goddard explains.

Importantly, study authors also theorize that humble leaders are so effective at helping teachers shake off shyness because they promote an environment more conducive to idea sharing. Results also show that in TRGs with modest leaders, teachers reported much stronger levels of psychological safety. In other words, they felt more comfortable taking risks and knew their leaders wouldn’t try to undermine them.

Those feelings of safety resulted in psychological empowerment toward their job; they felt their teaching positions had meaning, they felt a certain level of professional autonomy, they felt competent and that their work had a positive impact on their school.

“This feeling of teachers that they could safely share their knowledge comes from having a leader who has humility – an openness to learning from others, a willingness to revise opinions, and an appreciation for the strengths of others,” Prof. Goddard notes.

Does this translate to the rest of the world?

While the experimental portion of this study took place in China, Prof. Goddard believes the results are likely applicable in the United States and elsewhere.

“There’s a lot of evidence that suggests trust is a key part of successful organizations. And feeling psychologically safe and empowered to share your knowledge in the workplace is part of building trust, and that’s what humble leaders help create,” the researcher explains. “That is as true in the United States as it is in China.”

Similarly, these findings may prove useful far beyond the realm of education. Leaders, managers, and bosses of all kinds may want to consider mixing in a bit more modesty to their leadership style.

“Many of the same principles that make successful organizations cut across cultures and fields.  It makes sense that humble leaders will build trust and better relationships that will increase the effectiveness of any groups that have to work together,” Prof. Goddard concludes.

The study is published in the journal Educational Studies.

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