Is Leader Humility Desirable?

Recently a video of Nick Clegg, Deputy Primer Minister of UK and a Liberal Democrat Leader, has created some reasonable flutter over internet. It’s very rare that a political leader’s video would do rounds on internet, unless its some sting operation. The content of the video, nevertheless is very interesting. In this video Nick Clegg is apologizing to his voters for having made an electoral promise which later on was turned out to be difficult to keep. “We made a pledge, we did not stick to it, and for that I am sorry.” says the Deputy PM. Prior to elections Nick Clegg’s party had promised that tuition fees won’t be raised post-election. However, the coalition government in the UK lifted the cap after elections. The words he employs are very interesting. He says, “”It was a pledge made with the best of intentions ā€“ but we should not have made a promise we were not absolutely sure we could deliver. I shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around. Not least when the most likely way we would end up in government was in coalition with Labour or the Conservatives who were both committed to put fees up.”

The question however is, “How does it affect the position of a leader who is humble enough to accept his or her mistakes?”.

In another very interesting piece in Forbes, Doug Guthrie and Sudhir Venkatesh highlight humility as a virtue that has a positive impact on creativity. They argue that a humble leader, who is open to accept his/her mistakes is also open to seek and explore new ways for correcting those mistakes. In other words, a humble leader is likely to be a better listener and is likely to be someone who would be open to new ideas. They cite Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong, “when you are open to the idea of being wrong, when you truly believe that another path might be better and are not cowed by it, you will be a more creative and innovative person. You will take more risks; you will explore more paths with unknown outcomes; and you will build a better organization.”

The answer is not very clear. From what I gather, Nick Clegg hasn’t received simply plaudits for his humility act. In fact there are people from among his followers who are rather disillusioned and disappointed. They are disappointed with the fact that his apology is actually for ‘Having made a promise which wasn’t possible to be fulfilled’ and not for simply ‘not fulfilling a promise’. In other words, his apology is more of a philosophical compromise rather than acceptance of failure. In a recent paper in Academy of Management Journal, Owens and Heckman (August, 2012) look at the concept of humility in business as well as religious context. One of their findings show that in the context of business humility and perceived competence are strongly related to each other. If a leader is perceived to be competent, than an act of humility is perceived positively; but if the leader hasn’t yet proved his/her competence, than humility isn’t viewed that favorably.

The two arguments above are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A humble leader who still hasn’t established his credentials for competence may still show humility and be open to new ideas. To anyone interesting in the topic, I strongly recommend the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, “My Experiments with Truth”. Probably the most honest and objective account of a leader’s philosophy and it’s evolution ever written in the human history.

But then, he was Mahatma Gandhi. He could afford to be humble!!!!!!
Bradley P. Owens, & David R. Heckman (2012). Modeling How to Grow: An inductive examination of humble leader behaviours, contingencies and outcomes. Academy of Management Journal, 55 (4), 787-818 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2010.0441


4 thoughts on “Is Leader Humility Desirable?

  1. Hi, This is a very interesting topic and I really enjoyed the read. Thanks for it.
    I would like to point out a few political facts.
    Liberal Democrats are in power for the first time ever.
    Liberal Democrats have only 8.7% seats in parliament.
    Liberals and Conservatives are east and west in terms of their philosophy.
    Therefore, with just 8% power if they can impact 40% to 50% policy decisions, it’s far from failure.
    Also, if they would have been in power with full majority, they would have kept this promise. They would have sacrificed something else.
    So the question is was this promise really impossible to keep or was it a political compromise?
    And that leads to another question – is this apology, really an apology or is this a strategy? And if it’s a strategy results can be known in long run only (In political world I would give it 5 years).

  2. šŸ™‚ – The song is great…… šŸ™‚

    You are right. It’s tough to assess the sincerity of the apology. Anyway, even if it’s a political move with some specific objective in mind, it’s difficult to assess its impact. So far as Lib Dems’ 8% representation is concerned, look at our country. In India, for last 22 years every government has been a coalition government and parties with hardly 15-20 seats have influenced policy making heavily. But well, I am not so much informed about UK politics so I can’t comment much.

    What really caught my attention was that he actually said sorry.
    Which is just so rare!

  3. his apology is more of a philosophical compromise rather than acceptance of failure, he should have just said sorry we did not do what we said we would do. but by saying that the promise was impossible to keep he is showing us that this is a political strategy crying crocodile tears.

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