How Humble Leaders Foster Resilience

An interview with Dr. Bradley Owens on the value of humility.

Posted Feb 26, 2019

Today we continue in this series of interviews with experts on how resilience — one of the major themes of my book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience — connects to their area of study.

This interview is on the subject of humble leadership and resilience with Dr. Bradley Owens. He is an Associate Professor of Business Ethics in the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University. His research focuses on the impact of leader humility on individuals and teams, ethical leadership, and relational energy. 

Bradley Owens, used with permission.
Source: Bradley Owens, used with permission.

JA: How do you personally define humble leadership?

BO: At the root of humble leadership is self-transcendence. Humble leaders have successfully tempered or tamed the ego and embraced a leadership perspective that seeks to elevate everyone. The specific dimensions of humility we've discovered through our qualitative interviews with leaders entail, first, teachability; second, a willingness to view oneself accurately (strengths and weaknesses); and third, to value and verbalize the strengths of those around you. 

JA: How did you first get interested in studying humble leadership?

BO: I read James Collins’ book Good to Great during my first year as a doctoral student and was intrigued by the idea that the best leaders possess a paradoxical combination of intense professional and personal humility. As I searched to learn more about what humble leadership looks like, how to measure it, and why it is beneficial, I found very little in the academic literature. Thus, I decided to focus my dissertation on defining, measuring, and exploring the effects of leader humility in organizational contexts.  

JA: What is the connection between humble leadership and resilience?

BO: Some of my colleagues and I recently published a paper showing that humble leadership fosters psychological capital in followers. Psychological capital entails hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism (HERO). From our qualitative interviews, I think humility benefits leaders personally, because humble people are more likely to see failure as just a part of the developmental process. Since humble leaders don't try to keep up appearances or power postures, it is less distressing and thus easier to recover when things don't go well. 

JA: What are some ways leaders might cultivate humility?

BO: This is where our research is focused currently. There is a lot to learn in this regard. Our qualitative interviews suggest that humility is something leaders can cultivate through deliberate practice or something that results from accruing life experience. Getting 360-degree feedback to gain a compressive understanding of your strengths and weaknesses as a leader is a good start. Our research also suggests that embracing a growth mindset (a concept from Carol Dweck's research and popular book Mindset) is another effective way to cultivate humility. 

JA: Can you share about what you’re working on these days related to humble leadership?

BO: My colleagues and I are currently examining the relevance and function of leader humility in extreme contexts. We have been interviewing special operations commandos and combat leaders to learn about the boundary conditions for the effectiveness of leader humility. We are also examining the neurological underpinnings of humility and narcissism using EEG readings of leaders.