As a leader, do you feel like you have to know it all? Or that expressing uncertainty or revising your viewpoints would undermine your effectiveness as a leader?

Unfortunately, this way of thinking can backfire. Nurse-leader and author Karlene Kerfoot, writing about health care, suggested that when leaders become entrenched in their routine thought processes, they are more likely to disregard others’ helpful ideas and innovative models of leadership. Understandably, you may want to hold firmly to the thinking styles that have launched you into success. But this can be detrimental when it causes your thinking to become inflexible. Leaders who experience accelerated success may be particularly vulnerable to a sense of invincibility that causes them to stop seeking new information, additional training, or others’ feedback.

According to Kerfoot, “When leaders stop inviting dialogue, critique, and intellectual challenge, both from within their thoughts and from others, they begin a slow descent into their death as a leader.”

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Certainly, effective leaders have a clear vision and are able to motivate people to accomplish it. Yet, especially in the midst of a pandemic, we are realizing the importance of accepting the tentative nature of our circumstances and being able to pivot our ideas to meet new challenges. Such flexibility requires being willing to rethink our thinking.

This can also be referred to as intellectual humility. In the field of psychology, definitions of intellectual humility center most on recognizing our intellectual limitations, followed by social features, such as a willingness to appreciate others’ intellectual strengths. If intellectual humility involves recognizing your ideas and opinions might be wrong, it is likely closely linked to being open to revising your viewpoints when warranted, respecting that people come to different values and opinions, and not experiencing psychological turmoil when people think you’re wrong. 

Intellectual humility may be challenging to embrace for leaders who are focused on achievement and recognition. Interestingly, it’s also challenging for followers to accept when they prefer the reassurance of infallible expertise from leaders. Given these potential obstacles, is greater intellectual humility worth pursuing?

Although intellectual humility has not often been studied among leaders, this exciting new area of research is suggesting that leaders may want to cultivate intellectual humility for the sake of themselves, their employees, and their organizations. Here is why.

1. Intellectual humility may make your followers more satisfied

A recent study of new leaders at a university indicated that leaders who were more intellectually humble tended to have followers who were more satisfied with their leadership. The characteristic of intellectual humility that stood out as most important was leaders’ respect for others’ viewpoints—appreciating that there are diverse ways of thinking about topics and respecting those who think differently from oneself. When leaders did this, their followers tended to be more satisfied with the way their leaders interacted with them and created a tolerant and fair environment.

Why might leaders’ respect for diverse thinking styles make followers more satisfied? Some studies suggest that intellectual humility shapes leadership style and makes leaders more follower-centered. 

2. Intellectual humility promotes follower-centered leadership

Research suggests that as leaders become more intellectually humble, they engage in more servant leadership. Servant leaders are motivated first by a desire to serve and only subsequently by the aspiration to lead. They act by transcending their own interests in order to prioritize the well-being, growth, and development of their followers.

For example, among one small group of young leaders in higher education, those who became more intellectually humble during their transition into a new leadership position ended up engaging in more servant leadership. This was based on leaders’ descriptions of themselves as well as accounts from direct supervisors and coworkers.

In addition, people who grew in the characteristics of an intellectually humble leader, such as not being overconfident about their own perspective and valuing different ways of thinking about topics, tended to be better at taking a follower’s perspective and were kinder and more empathic toward followers.

In a similar but larger study, the characteristic of intellectually humble leadership that was most salient to servant leadership was respecting others’ viewpoints. This suggests that having an appreciation for diverse ways of thinking and making decisions is central to leading in a way that prioritizes the needs of your subordinates.

Follower-centered attitudes seem to bring many benefits to organizations and employees. When leaders engage in servant leadership, they build stronger relationships with subordinates, cultivate trust in themselves as leaders and in their organizations, and benefit workers in various ways that also benefit their workplaces (such as greater psychological empowerment, job satisfaction, and work engagement, and less work stress, burnout, and intentions to leave).

3. Intellectual humility helps leaders who fall from grace make amends

It seems a week can’t go by without a new headline about a leader caught in a scandal: fraud, bribes, cover-ups, and the list goes on. Can intellectual humility offer hope to leaders who mess up in big ways? A number of studies suggest yes.

For example, a survey of individuals who had learned about a major offense by a religious leader, such as stealing money, suggested people were more willing to forgive leaders they viewed as intellectually humble. They were more likely to want to be nice to intellectually humble leaders and were less likely to avoid them after the transgression.

  • Expanding Awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility

    This article is part of our three-year GGSC project to raise awareness about intellectual humility research and its implications.

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What’s more, intellectual humility in the area of a leader’s expertise may be particularly meaningful in promoting forgiveness when leaders commit a transgression in that area. One study found that when religious leaders offended people around religious beliefs and values (for example, telling someone they would go to hell for befriending people who are gay)—compared to offending people on a topic unrelated to religious beliefs and values (for example, finances)—it was all the more important for people to view the leader as intellectually humble specifically about religious beliefs and values.

It may be that people who view their leaders as intellectually humble have greater hope that their leaders will learn from their mistakes, make corrections, and do better in the future. This notion supports the “social oil” hypothesis of intellectual humility for leaders. When leader-follower relationships are strained by leaders falling from grace, intellectual humility may provide the social oil that paves the way to forgiveness and prevents the relationship from breaking down completely. 

At the same time, not all findings about intellectual humility among leaders are positive. For example, there is some suggestion that religious leaders who are intellectually humble about their religious beliefs may have more strained relationships with God and, in turn, worse mental health in some cases. There is so much more work to be done to understand the complexities of intellectual humility among leaders. While much of the research to date has focused on humility in religious leaders or leaders within religious universities, we need to learn about intellectual humility in many different areas, such as businesses, government, and non-government organizations.

Cultivating intellectual humility

For leaders who would like to become more intellectually humble, where should you start? Unfortunately, this science is in its infancy, but some studies are beginning to reveal factors that might promote intellectual humility.

Reasoning about situations from a third-person (more objective) standpoint may increase intellectual humility compared to reasoning from your typical first-person perspective. Taking such a psychologically distanced perspective seems to make people feel less threatened by the idea of acknowledging the limits of their knowledge. It also seems to help people focus more on their relationships than on themselves.

Although this practice may go against our natural inclinations, it can be fairly simple to implement. In this and similar research, participants wrote daily diary reflections about challenges they faced in their interactions with other people from a third-person rather than first-person perspective, imagining themselves as an observer.

  • Gaining Perspective on Negative Events

    Take a step back and analyze your feelings without ruminating

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Another factor that might promote intellectual humility by making us less defensive is taking a growth mindset of intelligence, which involves believing intelligence can be developed rather than that it is a static trait that can’t be changed. Learning about the growth mindset of intelligence is another process that can be fairly simple. In this study, it only took reading an article about intelligence being malleable to make a difference in people’s intellectual humility. For more on this, consider Carol Dweck’s TED talk on how to develop a growth mindset. 

If all else fails, simply asking yourself about the likelihood your knowledge may be inaccurate on a particular topic could help activate your intellectual humility in a way that promotes humble responses when you receive information on that topic. This highlights that even when we have the general capacity to be intellectually humble, we still benefit from reminders in our daily lives that our particular information may be inaccurate or incomplete.

Until we gather more detailed insight into how to cultivate intellectual humility, these three options are worth a try.

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