Humble versus heroic leadership and the impact on company performance

We’ve heard lots in recent years about servant leadership, which has its roots firmly in the military.  Then there’s the traditional, yet still often quoted, transformational leadership which veers more towards the heroic notions of leadership – charismatic, visionary, strong, someone to look up to and admire.

Therefore, it was interesting to come across some research in a recent edition of the Journal of Organizational Behavior which explored the idea of humble leadership and in particular, how this might benefit an organisation’s performance.

The research

The joint Belgian-American research team defined humble leadership in terms of feedback seeking behaviour (FSB).

They were particularly interested in the extent to which humble leadership would impact top management team (TMT) potency and hence, organisational performance. Team potency is the amount of confidence the team has based on their perceptions of their ability to overcome challenges and achieve their objectives.

422 TMT members from 65 small and medium companies in Belgium and the US participated in a series of surveys.

In each company, between one and four people completed one survey focused purely on financial organisational performance. All other TMT members in a company randomly assigned to complete one of two other surveys – one focused on CEO vision articulation; or one focused on CEO feedback seeking behaviour.

The findings

  1. When CEOs proactively ask TMT members to give them feedback on their performance and behaviour, it has a direct positive impact on company performance. The positive relationship between CEO feedback seeking behaviour and organisational performance is mediated by TMT potency.
  2. Visionary CEO leadership is also positively associated with organisational performance. This positive relationship between leadership style and company performance is not, however, mediated by TMT potency suggesting perhaps that the confidence which comes from a visionary leader is enough for the whole top team.
  3. What was less clear was the extent to which using both styles at the same time might end up in one nullifying the impact of the other. Whilst the researchers found that feedback seeking behaviour had a strong positive relationship with TMT potency when the CEO had a low visionary style, the findings were less clear in terms of high visionary leadership. The researchers therefore urge some caution in leaders not using both styles at the same time.

Ultimately, a key takeaway from this research is that there is a time and place for different leadership styles. For an organisation changing direction, or hitting some bumps in the corporate road, visionary leadership might well be the better way to go. At other times, such as trying to improve employee commitment and engagement, demonstrating a more humble, feedback seeking leadership style might be the best course to take.

Implications and solutions

The idea of actively asking for feedback is still seen as an anathema by some CEOs, particularly those who were taught the Westernised dogma of heroic, transformational and strong leadership being the best way to achieve performance.

Humble feedback seeking leadership requires a level of vulnerability, openness to others’ ideas and a genuine curiosity in learning more about oneself. I’d go as far to say that doing this requires a high degree of confidence in its own right and a thick skin. As such, it shouldn’t be too readily dismissed.

Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee have written about the importance of avoiding developing the ‘CEO disease’ of avoiding asking for feedback, or only seeking feedback from people you know are going to tell you what you want to hear. This creates an information vacuum and in turn, can be dangerous for organisational performance.

  1. For those leaders for whom feedback seeking behaviour is new, why not start off by arranging 360-degree feedback? It needn’t be an arduous or overly bureaucratic thing. Your HR or OD team may already have something that’s used for managers in your organisation. Alternatively, if you have a coach, you can arrange the feedback through them. I’ve done this with lots of my leadership coaching clients where they ask participants three questions – “what do I do well?”, “what don’t I do well?” and “what should I start doing asap?” All feedback comes through to me and I compile a report which we go through at the next coaching session.
  2. Don’t just leave it to 360, though. Developing the habit of asking your leadership team how they think you handled the delivery of a key project, for example, is good practice.
  3. If you lead a team of any kind (you don’t have to be a CEO) remember, you’re a role model. If your team see you regularly asking for feedback then they are more likely to start doing this too. Indeed, the journal article references other research which shows teams that actively seek and give each other feedback tend to be more effective.

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