A growing body of research suggests that the more arrogant the leader, the less powerful

“I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”
“I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”
Image: Reuters/ Carlo Allegri
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Powerful leadership has long been associated with a certain brash authority, a self-confident swagger. But that image of the arrogant alpha male as the ultimate powerful leader doesn’t hold up to psychological scrutiny. As Ashley Merryman notes in the Washington Post, a growing body of evidence shows that those who are humble are considerably more effective.

One study, published in July in Personality and Individual Differences, showed that those who acknowledged that they weren’t always right and would change their minds if presented with new evidence performed better on a task than those who insisted their were nearly always right.

The task involved 155 participants reading a list of 40 statements, then taking a survey on the subjects covered in those statements (which included some fictional topics presented as fact). They then read a second list of 60 statements, where they were asked to identify which they’d read before and which were new. The humble participants were better at identifying the new statements, and the arrogant ones were far more confident that their wrong judgments were in fact right.

Meanwhile, a study of 105 CEOs published last year in Journal of Management showed that humble leaders had a lower employee turnover, greater staff satisfaction, and stronger company performance, among other benefits.

One possible reason for the weak performance of arrogant leaders is the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” where people are essentially too stupid to recognize their own ignorance. Jessica Collet, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, explains that those experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect “feel they know exactly what they’re doing” when in fact “they don’t know enough to know how little they know.”

As Merryman points out, further research suggests that humble leaders are better able to admit their mistakes and delegate responsibility, which makes those in their team more motivated.

Anyone who’s ever had an arrogant boss won’t be surprised by this research. Pompous leaders can’t recognize their errors and so are unable to learn; they’re brittle when presented with problems and difficult to work with. Humble people, meanwhile, have a more reliable assessment of their own abilities and are more open to new ideas.

It seems obvious. But the truly arrogant are often unable to recognize the down sides of their overconfidence. And some, of course, are not even able to recognize their own overconfidence.