Why Humble, Empathic Business Leaders Are More Successful

It's increasingly evident that business leaders who are capable of experiencing and demonstrating empathy, compassion, and humility have greater success. Research as well as direct business experience confirms this. One recent example is a study of 1500 leaders and their employees. It found that humble leaders who have increased self-awareness and insight experience greater commitment and performance from their employees.

According to the research findings, "Leaders with a strong self-insight demonstrate a good understanding of their own needs, emotions, abilities and behavior. On top of that, they are proactive in the face of challenges." The study found that when employees experience this type of leadership, it has a positive effect, and that's especially true when the leader is humble.

More broadly, research in recent years indicates that the capacity for compassion and empathy are innate, and it can be strengthened through conscious effort and focus. These capacities reflect letting go of ego-driven attitudes and behavior; and they enhance positive, effective relationships. We are now seeing evidence that they are linked with greater business success, especially in the form of increased competitive advantage. For example, billionaire founder/CEO of Virgin Group, Richard Branson has pointed out that "In business... companies that want to survive...are smart enough to know that caring and cooperation are key."

Today's organizations require what the New York Times columnist Adam Bryant has described as a "quick and nimble" management culture. This, in turn, requires leaders to let go of focusing so much on themselves; to let go of the "alpha male" role, as Georg Vielmetter of the Hay Group has called it. Then, they are more able to engage with diverse employees, and from a more humble perspective. Vielmetter pointed out that

The time of the alpha male -- of the dominant, typically male leader who knows everything, who gives direction to everybody and sets the pace, whom everybody follows because this person is so smart and intelligent and clever -this time is over. We need a new kind of leader who focuses much more on relationships and understands that leadership is not about himself...who knows he needs to listen to other people...to be intellectually curious and emotionally open...(and) needs empathy to do the job.

These capacities are also evident in a study from Catalyst, described in Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib's Harvard Business Review Blog. It found that when employees observed diminished ego in their managers -- such as humbleness and empowering workers -- they reported being more innovative and engaged; more likely to suggest new product ideas and ways of doing work better.

In a global marketplace where problems are increasingly complex, no one person will ever have all the answers. As Google's SVP of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, says, "Your end goal is what can we do together to problem-solve. Without humility, you are unable to learn." In fact, Bock says that humility is one of the traits he's looking for in new hires. "Your end goal is what can we do together to problem-solve. I've contributed my piece, and then I step back." And it is not just humility in creating space for others to contribute, says Bock--it's "...intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn."

That's consistent with the Catalyst study, which shows that altruism makes employees more innovative and engaged - especially when working with employees from diverse backgrounds, which is increasingly common. In fact, it found that humility is one of four critical leadership factors for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included. Employees who perceived altruistic behavior from their managers also reported being more innovative, suggesting new product ideas and ways of doing work better. Moreover, they were more likely to report engaging in team citizenship behavior, going beyond the call of duty, picking up the slack for an absent colleague -- all indirect effects of feeling more included in their workgroups.

In a similar vein, Richard Branson stresses the importance of seeking and supporting a wide, diverse range of people; and, being open to input and potential solutions through active listening: "Over more than 40 years of building our businesses at the Virgin Group, (we have seen) that employing people from different backgrounds and who have various skills, viewpoints and personalities will help you to spot opportunities, anticipate problems and come up with original solutions before your competitors do."


Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.