Trump could benefit from a more humble approach: UBC Sauder expert


From his surprise dismissal of FBI director James Comey to his claim that no politician in history has been treated “worse or more unfairly,” U.S. President Donald Trump’s leadership style has led, in part, to his historically low approval rating.

In this Q&A we speak to UBC Sauder assistant professor Michael Daniels, who researches humility and leadership, to explore how Trump could benefit from adopting a humbler approach.

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Your research suggests that leaders benefit from being humble. Few people would describe Trump as humble, yet he succeeded in being elected as U.S. president. Why is that?

As it stands now, I think the Trump phenomenon is completely consistent with current research on narcissistic leaders. Narcissists talk a big game and do exceedingly well in job interviews. They are effective self-promoters and are often quite socially skilled, quickly learning how to manipulate their audience. However, they rarely deliver on their grandiose promises and may respond to criticism with anger and aggression. 

By many accounts, Trump’s presidency has been marred by an inability to compromise and pass legislation, infighting even within his inner circle, a lack of any clear policy on various international affairs, a seemingly endless string of scandals, and a historically low public approval rating. There may be several reasons for this, such as incompetence, but without a measure of humility, there will be no personal growth and these problems are only likely to worsen. 

Why is humility an important trait for leaders to exhibit?

Although some people may associate the word humility with weakness, researchers define it as a motivation to be self-aware, an appreciation for the strengths and contributions of others, and a willingness to accept feedback and learn from other people. Engaging in these humble behaviors actually requires a level of inner security because they open oneself up to potentially threatening information. A lack of humility is often a signal that someone is trying to compensate for insecurity or low self-esteem. Particularly when a leader has obvious flaws or misgivings, a lack of humility can make that person appear very weak to relatively astute observers. Indeed, there is some ongoing research that shows that the leaders who are perceived as humbler are actually perceived as more legitimate authorities. 

Leader humility has been shown to relate to a host of positive outcomes for one’s followers, such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment and job performance. What’s more, humility has a contagious quality in social groups. For example, studies have shown that humble CEOs have a more integrated and empowered top management team, which results in more satisfied and effective middle managers. Other studies have shown that in groups where a leader interacts with team-members in a humble way, a culture of humility emerges in that group, which results in greater team motivation and performance on complex tasks. In addition, humble leaders themselves are more likely to develop better relationships, be more helpful, and have more self-control. 

Is it too late for Trump? 

It’s not too late for anyone to develop a humbler approach to leadership. Although there is very little research in this area, some emerging work has shown that humility can be developed in people, at least in the short term. In fact, recent research has shown that narcissistic leaders can improve their effectiveness by also embodying some humble characteristics. Importantly, these should be genuine attempts to be humbler in leadership rather than faking humility for instrumental gain.