The Psychology of Humility

A marble-framed mirror hangs on a beige wall. Next to it is a plant cutting in a vase. No human reflection is visible in the mirror. The photo accompanies a blog post about the psychology of humility.

Academic psychology maintains that personality should be described in terms of five dimensions—the so-called five-factor model—and that all other dimensions of personality are combinations of these. But this model isn’t as comprehensive as many tend to believe. Consider ambition, for example. Ambition isn’t a factor in the Big Five, but we know it’s an important dimension of personality, essential to leadership. More recently, we at Hogan have concluded that the same is true of humility. This blog post will explain Hogan’s perspective on humility and the role of humility in leadership performance.

The Theory of Humility

What is humility, exactly? Humility can be defined as “freedom from pride or arrogance: the quality or state of low self-preoccupation.” All of the world’s major religions (including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism) maintain that humility is the proper human stance in view of the unfathomable nature of the universe. Humility is not meekness or self-deprecation; it is being willing to submit oneself to something “higher,” to appreciate the talents of others, and to recognize the limits of one’s ability or authority. In the words of “Dirty” Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, Magnum Force), “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Humility is best understood in relation to narcissism. They are psychological opposites, but they are similar in that they can be rated easily by other people. Like narcissism, humility is a kind of self-attribution (i.e., how people see themselves) that can be assessed using standard psychometric methods. An item intended to assess humility might read, “I am superior in many ways,” to which the humble answer is “false.” Typical behaviors associated with humility include being willing to admit mistakes, listening to feedback, treating others with respect, and making fun of oneself.

The Role of Self-Confidence in Narcissism and Humility

Self-confidence is important to both narcissism and humility. Self-confidence concerns the degree to which people feel able to solve their problems or complete tasks they have been (or will be) assigned. People with low self-confidence are defeated before they get started; people with high self-confidence persist with tasks until they are completed. Should they fail at a task, they dust themselves off and get ready for the next one.

Narcissists are always self-confident, and overly so. Although they are willing to take on tasks that few other people would attempt, they are unwilling to admit failure. If projects don’t turn out well, the reason will be circumstances beyond their control, such as incompetent subordinates, betrayal, or unforeseen changes in circumstances. But if a project turns out well, the reason is because the narcissist was in charge.  

On the contrary, humble people may or may not be self-confident. Humble people who lack self-confidence seem weak and indecisive, whereas humble people who are self-confident usually project themselves well—for example, Tom Brady, the all-pro quarterback of the National Football League, or professional tennis player Roger Federer.

The Theory of Leadership

The leadership literature overwhelmingly defines leadership in terms of the people who happen to be in charge, but this is a major confusion. People typically become CEOs, generals, admirals, or presidents because of hard work, politics, luck, or charisma, but these are not demonstrations of leadership.

Instead, we define leadership as the ability to build and maintain a team that can outperform its rivals. Similarly, leadership should be evaluated in terms of the performance of the team vis-à-vis its competition. When leadership is defined this way, the characteristics of effective leaders begin to stand out—and humility is one of them.

The importance of charisma to efficacy, on the other hand, is a myth.

The Myth of Charismatic Leadership

In Jim Collins’s famous 2001 book, Good to Great, he evaluates a sample of 1,435 organizations over a period of 40 years to identify the highest performers.1 Of the 11 companies Collins sees transition from good to great, none have a charismatic CEO. So where did our illusions about charisma among leaders come from?

In the earlier history of American business, CEOs tended to be benevolent caretakers with modest salaries. In the 1970s, activist investors began pushing corporate boards for better results, and this had a major impact on CEO selection. Specifically, companies began hiring charismatic CEOs who promised to deliver better financial results.

But charisma correlates with narcissism, and people with these characteristics excel at making promises to get themselves hired or elected for high-ranking positions. The data clearly show that, once hired, narcissistic CEOs ruin companies by making extravagant bets and bad decisions.2

Humble Leadership

Collins’s book shows that highly effective leaders are humble and fiercely competitive regarding the performance of their organizations. They don’t take themselves seriously, but they take business success very seriously.

A 2017 study from the MIT Leadership Center reinforces Collins’s findings.3 The authors describe the highly successful MIT leadership style as open minded, collaborative, apolitical, data-driven, and as avoiding the trappings of leadership (corner offices, private planes, etc.). Successful CEOs Sergio Marchionne (Fiat Chrysler), Alan Mullaly (Ford), Hubert Joly (Best Buy), and Larry Culp (GE) are exemplars of this humble leadership style.

Since the publication of Collins’ book, research on humility and leadership has blossomed, led by Bradley Owens and colleagues.4 For example, Ou et al. show that humble CEOs reduce pay disparities among their top team members, minimize power struggles, foster team integration, and encourage equal participation in strategy formation. These factors predict successful corporate performance.5

In sum, humble leaders are serious about their business but don’t take themselves seriously. Humble leaders can laugh at themselves and admit their flaws. They are willing to take advice. They are concerned about their staff and their ability to contribute to the team’s performance. They are not concerned about personal gain or recognition, and they tend to find the spotlight uncomfortable. Humble leaders emphasize something greater than themselves. It is a difference that makes all the difference.

This blog post was written by Robert Hogan, PhD, president and founder of Hogan Assessments.


  1. Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. HarperCollins.
  2. Chatterjee, A., & Hambrick, D.C. (2007). It’s All About Me: Narcissistic CEOs and Their Effects on Company Strategy and Performance. Administrative Science Quarterly, 52(5), 351–386.
  3. Ancona, D., & Gregorson, H. (2017). Problem-Led Leadership: An MIT Style of Leading. MIT Leadership Center.
  4. Wang, L., Owens, B.P., Li, J., & Shi, L. (2018). Exploring the Affective Impact, Boundary Conditions, and Antecedents of Leader Humility. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(9), 1019–1038.
  5. Ou, Y., Waldman, S., & Peterson, D.A. (2015). Do Humble Leaders Matter? Journal of Management, 20, 1–27.