OZARK, Mo. – Superheroes may not be powered by humility, but great leaders are, according to Dr. Pam Duitsman, a county engagement specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

“Many would not readily associate the quality of humility with strong leadership. We usually think of attributes like being strong, bold, confident, and decisive,” said Duitsman. “But a growing body of research is showing that humility is a key attribute for the best leaders.”

An article published in the Journal of Management (January 2021) reported that humble leaders have higher-performing teams, better collaboration, and more flexibility.

Other research has shown that, while many leaders have big egos that need to be stroked, humble leaders focus on the bigger picture, on the success of others and the organization.

“Humble leaders value authenticity rather than using flattery and insincerity to gain a following,” said Duitsman. “Rather than being over-confident, they realize their limitations and are open to learning from others.”


Jim Collins brought humility in leadership to the forefront when he began his research in 1996 for his book “Good to Great.” Collins identified the best leaders as “Level 5 leaders.” Humility was one thing necessary for all Level 5 leaders.

“These leaders did not seek success for their glory. They focused on success for the team and organization to thrive. These leaders shared credit for their success, and they were the first to accept blame for mistakes,” said Duitsman.

Dacher Keltner, a professor at the University of California - Berkeley, has researched this area for over 20 years. He reports that leaders often come to their positions by advancing the interests of others, by showing empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing. However, as they gain power, these traits begin to fade.

Keltner’s research shows those who hold power over others are more likely to engage in rude, selfish, unethical behavior: leading to misuse and abuse of their power.

“Flamboyant autocratic leaders positively change the course of an organization through sheer will, but it does not last,” said Duitsman. “They are three times more likely to interrupt others, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, say insulting things and lose their virtues.”


Based on research, humility in leadership has three qualities. First is an accurate sense of self, knowing our limitations, and being teachable. Second is the ability to present ourselves authentically without arrogance or false, insincere modesty. And third is being oriented to advancing others and using power to build others up rather than tear them down.

An accurate sense of self-awareness means a leader is aware of the limits of their knowledge. Reflect on your feelings, character, and behavior. Engage in a brutally honest self-assessment. “Humble leaders can admit their mistakes and shortcomings,” said Duitsman.

Second, practicing empathy, gratitude, and generosity help to sustain benevolent leadership. Even small expressions of gratitude, and acknowledgments of others, can yield big results. “Take time to celebrate successes of others, rather than cataloging your own,” said Duitsman.

And third, when others have problems, take time to understand, listen and develop empathy. Think about the other person and what is happening in their life. “Signal your concern by acknowledging their struggle and avoid rushing to judgment,” said Duitsman.


Humility can also aid in the development of trust. Trust can only happen if we have begun the process by first being trustworthy. “Become the person who instigates the development of trusting relationships with partners. Don’t always push your agenda,” said Duitsman.

It is also important to model and support collaboration. The constant competition will result in mistrust and waste time vying for position and self-glorification. “Science shows that when collaboration becomes the norm, team members are more relaxed, feel a part of something bigger than themselves, and bring their full abilities to the work,” said Duitsman.

Finally, Duitsman says it is essential that we remember our humble heroes, and model their ways, and cultivate humility until it becomes a habit of the heart. “We need humble heroes who are less concerned about their advancement and more concerned about promoting others. Leaders who use their virtues to contribute to the greater good,” said Duitsman.


Community development specialists with MU Extension engage with Missourians to build skills to lead, take action on community priorities, and connect and thrive.  By tapping into local strengths, the Community Development Program works collaboratively with communities to improve the quality of life and create vibrant, resilient communities and neighborhoods.

For more information, contact either of these MU Extension community development specialists working in southwest Missouri:  Pam Duitsman in Christian County, (417) 581-3558 or David Burton in Greene County, (417) 881-8909 or



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