A study led by academics at the University of Sussex has challenged the conventional narrative of leadership and advises those seeking to reach the top to stay humble.  

Amid a year of elections, leadership battles and the airing of series 18 of the BBC’s The Apprentice, you may be forgiven for thinking that arrogance or self-promotion is a pathway to success in business. But research published on March 19, 2024, shows that the opposite is actually true.

Elsa Chan, lecturer in organisational behaviour the University of Sussex Business School, and researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, and Nanyang Technological University, conducted a survey of 610 leaders across 18 industries and 21 job functions. They examined the relationship between humility, mentoring, status, and promotability. They found that most humble leaders had the potential to wield significant influence within their organisations.

The research showed that those demonstrating characteristics of humility - notably being open to feedback, appreciative of others’ strengths and contributions and honest about mistakes - can accrue trust by building strong relationships amongst their colleagues; all of which can be instrumental in advancing careers and gaining influence within their organisations.

Elsa said, “While some leaders climb the corporate ladder by taking a dominance route which could be costly, our research reveals that humble leaders take an alternative route – the status route that increases their influence.

“Our study suggests that humble leaders can create and capture some human capital value through informal mentoring and enhance promotability within organisations. It sheds light on the potential of humble leaders to not only positively impact their followers but also to advance their own careers within organisations.”

The researchers focused on human capital theory, which suggests people can improve their value with a greater focus on education and training. They found that humble leaders engage in behaviours that develop others naturally and, through this informal mentoring, build human capital and gain prestige, respect, and prominence.

David Hekman, co-author and associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said, “The general assumption is that humility doesn't aid a leader's personal career growth, with non-humble leaders often seen enjoying significant career success. Our study challenges this notion.

“This new understanding is crucial for reevaluating current perceptions in human resource management about the value of humility in leadership.”

Maw Der Foo, co-author and professor at Nanyang Technological University, said, “Organisations are encouraged to recognise and promote the role of informal mentoring in aiding the career growth of humble leaders through status enhancement.”