Should Women Really Be Leaning In? The Power of Humble Leadership

Much of the recent debate around women’s unequal representation in positions of leadership has centered around Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg’s advice that women should lean in and adapt the bold, aggressive characteristics of their male colleagues.

But, is that the best advice?

True confidence is critical for climbing the corporate ladder. Countless studies show that leaderless groups tend to elect self-promoting individuals as leaders, and that women tend to self-promote less than men.

The trouble with hubris and overconfidence

An article published in Psychology of Women Quarterly detailed a study in which, women displayed decreased motivation and performance when asked to boast about their own accomplishments. And, because people tend to misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence (and because men are much more prone to hubris than their female colleagues), we unconsciously reinforce the idea that men are better leaders than women.

Leaning in can help women climb the corporate ladder. But the real question is, does adopting the dysfunctional behaviors of their male counterparts help women, and the companies they work for, in the long run? The short answer is no.

Leadership is the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams and inspire followers to abandon their selfish goals in favor of those of the team. Arrogance and overconfidence are antithetical to that goal.

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In other words, nobody wants to work for an asshole – man or woman – and our research shows that around 60 percent of leaders currently in power (and as many as 75 percent) will fail because they are unable to build and maintain a team.

The power of humble leadership

Further, companies with humble leaders consistently outperform their competitors, and women have higher emotional intelligence and are naturally more humble, sensitive and considerate leaders than men (although there are exceptions to every rule). Perhaps this accounts for the findings presented in The Case for Investing in Women, which showed Fortune 500 companies with at least three women directors saw return on capital increase by at least 66 percent.

We aren’t here to argue that sexism does not exist in the workplace – women make up a mere 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions, even though they make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force. And, to be accepted in the boys’ club of corporate America, women do have to adopt the aggressiveness of their male counterparts.

But, in the long run, those same qualities could be the very ones that lead to their downfall, and companies would be better served revamping their leadership selection programs to focus on real leadership ability rather than who is shouting the loudest.

Ryan Daly is content manager at Hogan Assessment Systems, a global provider of personality assessment-based selection and leadership development solutions. As content manager, he works to form industry-leading scientific research into compelling though leadership.


5 Comments on “Should Women Really Be Leaning In? The Power of Humble Leadership

  1. I don’t appreciate that this article breaks down Sandberg’s angle of empowering women who, even when “self promoting,” aren’t nearly as aggressive as men. If Ryan Daly was seriously advocating for humble leadership, he should address the self-promoting males who are currently the norm.

  2. Consider the possibility that real confidence – the kind of confidence that allows anyone, male or female, to lean in and stay in – is rooted in deep humility. Humility is the access to learning. To be able to say, “help me understand that,” or “teach me more about that,” or “share more about your point of view with me” in a genuine spirit of joint discovery and in an authentic effort to learn from others and build alignment, that is confidence, and it is the humble, grounded confidence that many great leaders have in spades.

    1. Beautifully said.

      Sadly, your “help me understand that” raised my hackles instantly, and I had to smooth them back down. Arrogant, controlling leaders have found and adopted that phrase (at least in my experience) to *sound* humble, but really what they mean is, “You better have a good explanation for that screw up, and quick.” I think the key point from your observation isn’t the phrasing (anyone can say a learned phrase) but the fact that it has to be genuine and authentic and from a place of true humillity. That can’t be faked, and it is absolutely critical.

  3. “But the real question is, does adopting the dysfunctional behaviors of
    their male counterparts help women, and the companies they work for, in
    the long run? The short answer is no.”

    Ryan, the way you phrase this, as above and in other areas of this article, might make it seem like you assume inane hubris and overblown egos represent the gestalt of male leadership. I’d advise against unintentional misandrist tones in your writing there. I know catering to the white knighting pro-feminist tone in business is all the rage at this moment in time. We can hardly sell a product these days without attaching a pink ribbon to it. You, above most, know this all too well, being a marketing person. 😉

    Yes, I know you have “research” to back up some of your rather broad-sweeping females-rule-boys-drool statements, but there’s always research that contradicts whatever you want to window dress as a smoking gun for your marketing politics.

    I think leadership is a complex subject. The truth of the matter is that there is no sure-fire formula for success, outside of, perhaps, a laser-like focus and determination to get what you want or where you want…and a little bit of luck. It involves a complex strata of actions and personality features—some requiring sincere humility, of course, but other critical pieces of the recipe are not so soft and fluffy, or fair, even. Aggression, timing, risk-taking, strategics, politics, and well-rounded human understanding are included, too, The truth I suspect is most people don’t want to look at the tougher, razor-skinned side of leadership. It’s trendy, polite, and palatable to speak about the kind and considerate “servant leader” stuff, but there are other dimensions to leadership, too, and I find all too often that they aren’t bothered with all that much in writings like this.

    The reason why is no doubt the same reason Niccolo Machiavelli’s treatise on leadership and governance was detested when it was published: humanity does not like recognizing its own reptilian nature.

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