Humility about your own ethics can inspire your followers to act ethically.

By Brett Beasley

New research shows how leaders can signal moral humility and, in turn, positively influence their followers.

Arrogant Leader


"Set a good example!"

It's something we say to older siblings. It's something we hope for from famous athletes, movie stars, and public figures. Above all, it's advice we give to leaders of all kinds.

The basic idea is simple enough: Good behavior trickles down. When someone with power, authority, or influence behaves ethically, his or her fans, admirers, and followers pay attention and follow suit.

Indeed, research demonstrates that setting a good example makes a difference. Psychologists call the process "social learning." It is one of the dominant explanations not just for how ethical leadership works but also for why it matters for our organizations and for our world.

Still, some leaders are uncomfortable with the idea of "setting an example." All too familiar with their own weaknesses and shortcomings, they worry about placing themselves on a pedestal. Some even wonder if it is prideful or even a little arrogant to hold oneself up as an example. Couldn't too much talk about one's ethics even make followers stressed out, suspicious, or resentful?

A new study led by researchers at Brigham Young University, the National University of Singapore, and Zhongnan University of Economics and Law offers guidance that can help leaders navigate this difficult terrain. It reveals that the process of influencing others to behave more ethically isn't about ostentatiously displaying ethical perfection. In fact, the study shows that remaining humble about your own morality can actually serve as an asset in encouraging moral behavior in others.

What is “Leader Moral Humility”?

Lead researcher Bradley Owens and his co-authors introduce a concept they call "Leader Moral Humility." Inspired by previous researchers who identify humility as “that crest of human excellence between arrogance and lowliness," Owens and his colleagues see Leader Moral Humility as a matter of balance. Leaders with moral humility do not believe they have low moral worth. But neither do they see themselves as a moral authority. Instead, leaders with moral humility try to see their own moral competence accurately—neither in an inflated way nor in an overly self-accusatory way. Morally humble leaders also appreciate the moral strengths and behaviors of other people. Lastly, they focus on moral learning, meaning that they are willing to learn from others, ask for support, and admit their own mistakes.

To begin to observe the effects of a leader's moral humility, Owens and his colleagues initially collected data from 72 different leaders and their teams. They drew from 13 Chinese businesses in several industries (tech, manufacturing, and real-estate) and across several job functions (research, production, sales, and others). All of the followers (a group of 350) rated leaders on moral humility, general humility, and ethical leadership. They also responded to questions designed to evaluate: 1) moral self-efficacy, or their implicit belief about their own ability to be moral; 2) their view of morality as either a fixed trait or something malleable that individuals can improve at over time. Lastly, leaders then rated their followers on their unethical behavior and their pro-social behavior (such as helping others).

They found that leaders high in moral humility made for more moral self-efficacy and less unethical behavior on the part of followers. What also made a difference was whether the followers in question saw ethics as fixed or malleable. In other words, those who believed in their own ability to become more moral derived the most benefit from morally humble leaders.

The researchers wanted to know if their findings would hold up in Western as well as Eastern cultures. After re-running the study with some slight variations in the United States, the same hypothesis proved true: leaders who displayed moral humility had followers with higher levels of moral self-efficacy and their followers were less likely to engage in unethical behavior.

Owens and his colleagues do not mean to suggest that leaders should weaken their commitment to ethics. They affirm that leaders must set an ethical "tone" and must be dedicated to moral judgment and decision-making. In fact, they recognize that moral leaders can be especially inspirational, causing others to want to do moral things and to become the best version of themselves. The key finding is that leaders can do all of these things without posturing or suggesting they are morally superior to others. And when leaders do strike this balance, they can be quite effective in motivating others to act ethically.

Put it in Practice

These three steps can set you on the journey toward becoming a more morally humble leader:

Admit your blind spots and limitations. Be honest about your limitations. This may sound like dangerous territory, especially if you tend to think of leadership as a matter of having all the right answers. But it is important to recognize that admitting your limitations, blind spots, and uncertainties can show strength, confidence, and a commitment to doing the right thing. Leaders have little to fear in being more vulnerable in this area. As Owens and his colleagues note, "follower perceptions of displays of humility are generally very positive."

Acknowledge the ethical strengths of others. In addition to recognizing and admitting your own moral limitations, make sure to validate other people and respect their ethical strengths and expertise. But don't just notice them, make sure to show your appreciation by asking their advice, including them in decision-making, and praising their ethical strengths and actions.

Adapt and learn from the feedback of others. The ultimate test of knowing your limitations and the strengths of others is whether or not you actually do change and adapt as an ethical leader. So after being open to others' input and honest about your own limitations, make sure to "show your work." By showing your followers that ethics is an ongoing process, you can encourage them to develop more of a growth mindset.


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