Humility long ago joined the pantheon of desirable leadership traits, elevated by authors like Robert Greenleaf and Jim Collins. Conventional wisdom holds that great leaders blend the will to achieve with self-doubt. They act decisively but also seek advice from others and admit their own mistakes.
But humility isn't a de facto best practice, some leadership experts say. In his new book Open Source Leadership: Reinventing Management When There Is No More Business as Usual, leadership guru Rajeev Peshawaria argues that "history shows that people love working for autocratic top-down leaders." He cites such examples as Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, and Nelson Mandela.
Peshawaria's organization, the Kuala Lumpur-based Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre, surveyed 16,000 executives, asking them to choose from a list the top three leadership traits shared by people like Abraham Lincoln, Jack Ma, and Mahatma Gandhi. Overwhelmingly, respondents identified traits associated with dominance, such as challenging general opinion and remaining firm in their course of action despite feedback and resistance.
The juniors get nervous
Iconic leaders aren't the only ones admired for their autocratic styles. A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that in some instances a more authoritarian hand works better, depending on the leader's status relative to his or her team. Specifically, low-level employees would rather cede control to the leader while higher-level ones prefer power sharing.
"Oftentimes, we forget that leadership is about relationships," says Jasmine Hu, an associate professor of management at Ohio State University and a co-author of the paper. "It is not just what team leaders want to provide to their members. It is also what team members want or expect from their leaders."
Hu and her fellow researchers studied 11 I.T. companies in China to see how power distributions within teams influenced worker expectations of leader assertiveness. First, they measured team members' perceptions of their leaders' humility, characterized by openness to advice from others, willingness to admit their limitations, and appreciation of others' strengths and contributions. They then assessed levels of knowledge-sharing and psychological comfort within teams and, finally, those teams' performance related to creativity.
They found that teams with humble leaders tend to share knowledge freely and be creative--so long as the leaders don't far outstrip followers in terms of power. On teams with yawning power gaps, however, humble leadership resulted in significantly lower creativity. Although the researchers did not look at things like productivity or morale, Hu expects those outcomes would be roughly the same.
On teams where leaders are much higher status, the propensity to consider others' opinions "could make team members nervous or uncomfortable, because they think that should be under the scope of the leader, not their own responsibility," Hu says. Under those circumstances, "leader humility actually can do harm to their teams' creativity."
Be the leader they want
Hu's best advice for leaders is to know what your team expects of you. If you are leading high performers, then you should eagerly solicit their thoughts and loudly credit their contributions. But don't replicate that behavior with junior employees. In that case, more dominant behavior will produce better results.
For very mixed teams--when the CEO addresses the whole company, for example--take an average. "You can't satisfy them all," Hu says. "But if out of 10 people six want you to be dominant, then you probably have to demonstrate more confidence."
The ideal, Hu says, is not to be a humble leader or an autocratic leader, but rather to be a flexible leader. However, if you lean autocratic there are a few ways to get your humility on. "When you realize you are not doing something well, admit it in front of your followers," she says. "And pay attention to each follower to see if there is something unique about that person's contributions. If there is, praise it in public."