Taking Control Wisely: Can You Be Authoritative AND Humble?

Research shows that optimally asserting authority is best done with humility.

Posted Sep 05, 2018

Meeting Conference/ Pixabay Free Vector Graphic
Source: Meeting Conference/ Pixabay Free Vector Graphic

Anyone wanting to exert authority to maximum advantage would be wise to do so with humility. Although most writers addressing this subject deal specifically with those in the corporate world, in many respects their recommendations are generalizable not only to military, political and religious dignitaries, but also to parents, teachers, coaches, and others occupying positions of power, control, or influence.

What Humility Is—and Is Not

Just as the terms authoritative and authoritarian are frequently conflated, so are humility and humiliation. So it’s only prudent to describe what humility is really about.

All too commonly, people see a humble person as lacking in confidence and self-esteem; insecure and shy; meek, cowering, and self-debasing. Preachers may advocate for humility but certainly not in the context of healthy pride or effective leadership. Rather, they endorse humility as obeisance to deity. While it’s true that humble people recognize their shortcomings, that’s hardly to say they regard themselves as inferior or weak. Nor that they’re unwilling to work hard to improve themselves in areas where their knowledge or skills could stand further development.

In a sense, our humility best reflects our humanness. For if we’re arrogant (the very antithesis of humility), we’ll see ourselves as infallible. And presuming that we know everything, or can do everything, is a demagogic delusion that, in its refusal to admit personal limitations, makes us less genuinely human. Additionally, contrary to individuals who are pompous and pretentious, humble people—far less self-centered and self-aggrandizing—  exhibit appreciation, respect, and gratitude for the contribution of others. And rather than aggressively compete with those they work with, they choose to cooperate with them.

As summarized by Ashley Merryman in her “Leaders Are More Powerful When They’re Humble, New Research Shows” (Washington Post, 12/08/16):

True humility, scientists have learned, is when someone has an accurate assessment of both his strengths and weaknesses, and . . . sees all this in the context of the larger whole. He’s a part of something far greater than he. He knows he isn’t the center of the universe. And he’s both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. Recognizing his abilities, he asks how he can contribute. Recognizing his flaws, he asks how he can grow. [apologies for the exclusive use of the male pronoun here]

And lastly, consider this incisively phrased quotation from Ken Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager (1982):

People with humility do not think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less.

Authoritative vs. Authoritarian

In relationship to those working under them, individuals in authority are generally assumed to be in an authoritarian role. But in reality many people in charge execute their responsibilities in ways better described as authoritative, manifesting a leadership style usually designated democratic.

Those who lead authoritatively possess every bit as much confidence and expertise as their authoritarian counterparts. Yet they don’t pretend to have all the answers or allege that they alone know how to solve the organization’s problems. They’re both more aware of their deficiencies and more likely to apologize when they’re wrong. And they’re more willing to consult with those below them in rank for ideas and guidance in bringing a project or vision to fruition.

On the contrary, authoritarian leaders are unwilling (whether to themselves or others) to admit ignorance, or even incompetence, in areas where they’d clearly benefit from outside help. As Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, in his “Humility in Leadership,” emphasizes (Huffington Post, 10/27/14), leaders who lack humility regularly deny their shortcomings and, dominated by an overproud ego, are thereby restricted in both their personal and professional growth.

Ironically, it’s the fundamental security of authoritative leaders that enables them to reach out comfortably to others—which, in turn, enables their workers' performance to get progressively better. They’re not hampered from ongoing improvement as are far more rigid authoritarian leaders—at once less open-minded and more threatened by consulting with others, who might demonstrate a knowledge or skill set superior to theirs. Sadly, authoritarian leaders are typically less concerned with a project’s success than with how its final outcome will make them look. For their need to feel more valuable than others is typically their foremost priority.

Closely connected to this self-centered orientation is the circumstance that authoritarian leaders are more apt to abuse their authority. They’re more likely to bark out orders and act in a manner designed primarily to consolidate their status. And, too, since modesty isn’t their strong point, they’re more given to gloat or to brag about their successes, suggesting why so many of them are perceived as narcissistic. From all of this it naturally follows that authoritarian leaders, with their autocratic, domineering style, aren’t much liked by those who work for them—and feel intimated by them. For these hyper-controlled “underlings” are afforded little autonomy, and even less creativity in following such leaders' dictates.

A final consideration that, regrettably, ought to be added here is that our society fosters not an authoritative (or democratic) leadership style but an authoritarian one. Writing about our “every-man-for-himself’ culture, Dasa notes:

From a very early age, we are taught to compete and be the best we can be. Often times, what we’re not taught is to be thoughtful along the way and not neglect and crush others. Those who are able to dominate over others are glorified and as we grow, we try to emulate that behavior. / Since this attitude is woven into the very fabric of our society, when it comes to personal success, the trait of humility is almost all but forgotten.

Complementing this perceptive comment is another, on the website, The Character of Leadership (03/24/15), in which the author, “Bryant,” remarks:

The very concept of humility rarely crosses the mind of most people in positions of authority. It is simply not how we are typically conditioned to think. Our culture champions the loud, the bold, the brazen and ruthless. We live in a self-centric society. It’s the ‘me’ generation – self-absorbed, self-centered, entitled and narcissistic, demanding instant gratification and lacking concern for others.

Authority Combined With Humility

Obviously, humble leaders aren’t narcissistic. They’re secure enough to be fully cognizant, and accepting, of their weaknesses, so they don’t feel threatened by asking others for input. In addition, being more open and flexible, the organizations they lead are more apt to experiment, innovate, and grow.

Moreover, although humble authorities compete, judiciously, with marketplace rivals, internally they value cooperation over competition. They’re happy to make their associates look better, viewing their performance impartially and objectively as assets for the company they manage, head—or, indeed, own.

Here’s a quote by William Temple that elegantly encapsulates this admirable attribute as it might apply to such leaders:

Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.

Put somewhat differently, such authorities focus not on themselves but on the job at hand—guiding the process and getting it done as adeptly as they can as team leaders, rather than slavedrivers or supreme commanders. Such an orientation is well exemplified by Bryant (see end of previous section) in his depiction of those who don’t simply lead but humbly serve:

Superior leaders have a heart for service. But servitude in this context does not mean that leaders are subservient [but that they] work on behalf of the people they lead, serving the best interests of the individuals, team, customers, and organization. They provide guidance and coaching and continuity of vision and direction, delegate effectively, but also roll up their sleeves when appropriate.

Which is just another way of saying that their leadership is authoritative, not authoritarian. They strive to better others as much as they do themselves. They recognize the value of empowering others to operate at their best and reward them for doing so. They don’t dominate those under them so much as teach them, or empower them, to exert as much initiative, self-sufficiency, and control over their work as possible. And they cultivate an environment where everyone can feel meaningfully aligned with the organization’s over-arching mission—providing managerial oversight when needed but also granting considerable autonomy to those around them.

Research on Why Authority and Humility Go So Well Together

As a caveat, it should be mentioned that there are situations in which authoritarian governance may be more appropriate than an authoritative, democratic, or participative one. To give just one example, as delineated by Kendra Cherry (06/01/18), the former leadership style can be beneficial when a decision must be made quickly and efficiently, there’s no time to consult with a large group, and the leader is the most knowledgeable person available.

Overall, however, research has shown that leading authoritatively rather than autocratically has many advantages. Academicians Bradley Owens and David Hekman, in particular, deserve praise for their pioneering, and integrative, work on humble leadership. Their elaborately detailed, scholarly article—“Modeling How to Grow: An Inductive Examination of Humble Leader Behaviors, Contingencies, and Outcomes”—offers compelling evidence (from military, manufacturing, and ministry settings) to illustrate the superiority of heading an organization with minimal presumptions or pretensions.

Several of these authors’ points have already been suggested. But others might be briefly highlighted here. Humble leaders realize they’re a part of something much larger than themselves, and this recognition—actually liberating for them—is closely tied to their attitude of humility. They think about how, ideally, in their position they can contribute. Honest, self-confident, and realistic, they feel free to admit mistakes. Consequently, they make no effort to model some kind of impossible perfection that others must follow. In displaying such candor they also put those who work for them at far greater ease than if these workers were forever subject to scrutiny by an eagle-eyed authoritarian.

Flexible themselves, they allow considerable latitude in their staff, and they share their power with them rather than selfishly “gorge” themselves on it—permitting, when appropriate, others to lead and be creative. They invite, rather than discourage, alternative viewpoints on organization, growth, and planning. They also hire more diverse management teams, and there’s less pay discrepancy between them and those under them. Not surprisingly, they have less employee turnover, and their employees report higher levels of satisfaction. Other studies have shown that these employees also behave more ethically. And being more emotionally invested in their work, they’re less likely (passive-aggressively) to sabotage the work environment.

Action Plan to Develop More Humility

Inasmuch as increasing your humility can make you more effective in a broad variety of contexts—including your most personal relationships— what’s the best way of cultivating this well-recognized virtue?

Here are some tips (most of which have been adapted from WikiHow’s “How to Be Humble”):

  • Consider all situations in which cooperating, vs, competing, with others is not just viable but ethically and practically advantageous.
  • Do less talking and more listening; show genuine interest in the lives of others, particularly those whose concerns don’t mirror your own.
  • Acknowledge when you’re wrong—there’s no shame in admitting mistakes; people will usually appreciate and respect your willingness to avoid blaming others for errors primarily your responsibility.
  • Share credit with others for accomplishments—rarely do you achieve anything 100% on your own: you either learned from people who came before you or those currently part of your organization.
  • Practice going not first, but last.
  • Don’t be concerned about how you’ll look to others: when you’re ignorant or unskilled in some area and need advice, don’t hold back from (humbly) asking for it
  • Never get so satisfied with what you do that you stop striving for improvement; whether personally or professionally, complacency is hardly a constructive attitude.
  • Whenever possible, encourage others rather than criticize them for their mistakes; you want to inspire them to put forth their best effort, so it’s best not to provoke their anxiety or anger.
  • If you’re tempted to judge others (so that, by stroking your ego, you can feel superior to them), look for ways of judging yourself, noting areas in which you fall short. (That, after all, is a major part of what humility is all about.)
  • Focus on all you have to be grateful for, and on all the people who (directly or indirectly) helped you get to where you are today.
  • While it’s fine to be proud of your achievements, don’t brag about them either. Boasting, self-congratulatory behavior generally offends others (especially when they view you as declaring supremacy over them).
  • In conversations, be considerate: don’t talk over others or relate everything they say back onto yourself (for dominating a dialogue relates much more to arrogance than humility).
  • Compliment others for their talents and positive qualities. Remember, feeling that you need to compete with them ultimately reflects your insecurity, and it renders almost impossible learning valuable things that otherwise they might offer you.
  • Don’t resist deferring to another’s viewpoint or judgment when you recognize it’s better than yours; humility has mostly to do with triumphing over a self-aggrandizing ego, so endeavor to transcend any inclination to see yourself as possessing more intrinsic worth than those around you.
  • Be helpful to others (particularly those that can’t return the favor); also, consider doing volunteer work—service to others is a wonderful reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around you.
  • Find ways to spend more time in nature: not only will doing this assist you in restoring your childlike sense of awe, it will also enable you to see just how minuscule you are compared to the natural world’s permanence, immensity, and mystery.

So, if you’re determined to be more humble, this list could be a good place to start.

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.