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If Humility Is So Important, Why Are Leaders So Arrogant?

Source | hbr.org | By|Bill Taylor

A recent management column in the Wall Street Journal appeared under the appealing headline, “The Best Bosses Are Humble Bosses.” The article reported that humble leaders “inspire close teamwork, rapid learning and high performance in their teams.” It even reported that one HR consulting firm is planning to introduce an assessment to identify personality traits that include “sincerity, modesty, fairness, truthfulness, and unpretentiousness,” inspired in part by what two psychology professors call the H Factor (“a combination of honesty and humility.”)

This celebration of humility sounds great, and it is, but it flies in the face of daily headlines in the Journal and the realities of our business and political cultures. Exactly no one would use the word “humble” to describe the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Tesla CEO Elon Musk may be the most visible, influential, high-impact leader in Silicon Valley, yet it’s hard to imagine anyone with less “modesty” or “unpretentiousness.” In sports, Jerry Jones, the brash owner of the Dallas Cowboys, the world’s most valuable athletic franchise, never misses an opportunity to talk a big game, even though his team has not won a big game in decades.

All of which raises an obvious question: If humility is so important, why are so many leaders today, especially our most famous leaders, so arrogant? Or, to flip the question around: In the face of so much evidence that humble leaders do, in fact, outperform arrogant leaders, why is it so hard for leaders at every level to check their egos at the office door?

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