Date of Degree
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Norman St. Clair
By just about any measure, organizations today are more dynamic, diverse, and interdependent than at any other time in history. This environment puts unprecedented pressure on the human capacity to lead. And still, we demand more from our leaders—even as employees experience rising stress levels, declining loyalty, and deteriorating trust in their employers, and organizations face historically high rates of employee turnover along with the resulting financial and emotional costs. Clinging to romanticized notions of the larger-than-life leader blinds us to the paradoxical promise of humility; namely, that a leader’s greatest strength may lie, ironically, in the ability to admit weakness while being open to the ideas and feedback of others.
The majority of research on leader humility has been quantitative in nature, establishing correlations between leader humility and employee measures. These studies have yielded valuable insights, but they have not explored the complex, dynamic, and reciprocal ways that humility can operate within organizations. Nor have they captured the individual perceptions of participants as articulated in their own authentic voices. This exploratory instrumental case study addressed this gap in the literature by exploring what happened when leaders and employees at a large, complex, geographically dispersed organization participated in interactions that were infused with four humility elements: language, verbal expressions, non-verbal behaviors, and physical objects and settings. By applying constructivist grounded theory methods for data analysis, the study explained how participants made sense of and found meaning in those experiences, as well as how humility functioned during the interactions.
Eight conceptual categories were developed through close analysis of the coded data: Accurately Assessing Oneself, Being Accountable to Others, Being Part of Something Bigger, Caring for and Being Cared for, Connecting with Others on a Personal Level, Creating a Safe, Comfortable Environment, Grounding Oneself, and Recognizing the Value and Contributions of Others. Four overarching themes were identified from the categories: Seeking Clarity and Truth, Putting Oneself in Context, Achieving Reciprocity, and Transcending the Perceptual. These themes represented the primary ways participants expressed, experienced, and defined humility, and they contributed to the Reciprocal Relation Theory of Humility posited in the study.
Findings from this study suggested that infusing humility into leader-employee interactions may be an effective strategy to improve leader effectiveness and organizational performance by bringing people’s best ideas and authentic feelings into honest discussions focused on spurring individual growth, solving shared problems, achieving team goals, and/or advancing an organization’s mission. Results also suggested that humility fostered the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of leaders and employees, while laying the foundation for respectful, productive, and mutually beneficial interactions in the future. Participants expressed a range of thoughts and feelings in describing how they experienced, made sense of, and found meaning in humility, including increased relational trust, organizational loyalty, and self-efficacy; a stronger sense of belonging and being valued; and the perception of greater team effectiveness and adaptability along with enhanced organizational learning and innovation. The study made several recommendations to help practitioners develop leader humility programs with the potential to influence these and other employee, team, and organizational measures.
Perryman, David, "How Leaders and Employees Experience, Make Sense of, and Find Meaning in Humility" (2020). Theses & Dissertations. 383.