Humble & Kind Executives Are Viewed as More Powerful and as Better Leaders

Despite the visible increase in narcissism and rudeness in society and politics, humility & kindness are making a surprise come-back in business and leadership. Best-selling author Patrick Lencioni argues that the best team members don’t have big egos or concerns about status- they seek to point out the contributions of others, and they focus on collective, not individual success. William Baker and Michael O’Malley describe kind leaders as those that value their employees, give honest feedback, encourage individual growth, communicate expectations and act firmly and fairly.

How do executives view individuals that are humble and kind? Do they see them as demonstrating leader-like behaviors? Do they perceive them as powerful or as pushovers? And do they think they are more or less effective than those who are arrogant and rude? Building on the work of Christine Porath and her colleagues, I created different scenarios and pilot-tested them with a small group of healthcare executives.

The first scenario describes a humble executive named Kevin: “Kevin is the COO of a hospital. He is very intelligent. In his communication with his team and staff, he always talks about the team’s achievement and uses “we” and “us.” In individual and group meetings, he tends to listen more than he talks. When he makes mistakes, Kevin openly admits them and asks for his team’s help and ideas. He has an open-door policy and is always accessible to his staff. When he sees someone in the hallways, whether it is another executive or a housekeeper, he stops to greet him/her and to ask about his/her family.”

The second scenario describes an arrogant executive named Tom: “Tom is the COO of a hospital. He is very intelligent. In his communication with his team and staff, he always talks about his own achievements and uses “I” and “me.” In individual and group meetings, he dominates the conversations and rarely listens to others’ points of view. When he makes a mistake, Tom rarely admits his personal responsibility and often looks for others to blame. He instructs his administrative assistant to not let in anyone into his office without appointment. In the hallways, he looks mostly preoccupied with his phone and he briefly greets only other executives that are superior to him.

I then asked the executives to rate Kevin and Tom on a scale of 1-10, in terms of their “leader-like behavior”, “power” and “overall effectiveness in getting things done.” The respondents gave Kevin- the humble leader- an average score of 9/10 on “leader-like” behavior, while they gave Tom- the arrogant leader- an average score of 2/10 on that same dimension. Similarly, Kevin was seen as having more power (8/10 vs. 5/10) and being overall more effective (7.6/10 vs 4/10) than Tom.

In another set of scenarios, I described a kind executive named Sue: “Sue is the Vice President at a hospital. She is very intelligent. She is always kind to everyone even when she is having a bad day. When she is talking to someone 1:1, she makes sure to turn off her phone and put it away. When Sue hears about someone on her team achieving something meaningful, she makes sure to write him/her a handwritten thank-you note and she acknowledges him/her publicly. When someone makes a mistake or underperforms, she focuses on the behavior and she offers straightforward feedback and explains the consequences.”

The last scenario presented a rude executive called Stacey: “Stacey is the Vice President at a hospital. She is very intelligent. She always has run-ins with other executives and gives everyone trouble when she is having a bad day. When she is talking to someone 1:1, she often checks her phone for emails and messages. When Stacey hears about someone on her team achieving something meaningful, she often thinks that it is not a big deal and that it is part of his/her job, and while she may briefly acknowledge it, she quickly moves on to the next task. When someone makes a mistake or under performs, Stacey reacts harshly, often in front of others.

I asked the respondents to rate Sue and Stacey on the same dimensions mentioned above. Sue, the kind executive, received an average score of 9.3/10 on “leader-like behavior”; 7.9/10 on “power” and 8/10 on “overall effectiveness in getting things done.” Stacey, the rude executive, received an average score of 2.1/10 on “leader-like behavior”; 4.1/10 on “power” and 3.3/10 on “overall effectiveness in getting things done.”

While this research is still in its early stages and is yet to be tested with a large sample, there are a few observations that can be made:

–       Opposite to what some people believe, humble executives that focus on team achievements, are comfortable admitting their mistakes, and are approachable and available to others are seen are powerful, effective and overall acting as a leader should act.

–       Kind leaders that listen well and provide accurate positive feedback while holding others accountable are seen as equally powerful, effective and leader-like.

–       Since “perception is reality,” these preliminary findings suggest that arrogant and rude executives ought to consider behavioral modifications that can help change others’ perceptions of them. Executive coaching, for example, can help them be seen as fit for promotions, having influence, and being able to affect performance in organizations.

Amer Kaissi
About the author

Amer is a sought-after coach, professor, speaker, and author of "Intangibles: The Unexpected Traits of High-Performing Healthcare Leaders."
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