Asian Scientist Magazine (Sep. 13, 2022) — Depending on whom you ask or which self-help book you pick up, good leadership can mean different things. But if you’re looking to boost learning and growth within your team, recently published research in Education Studies points to a quality many often overlook: humility.
Humble leadership, as defined by researchers from Beijing Normal University and Ohio State University, is when a leader is willing and able to acknowledge their own shortcomings; appreciative of others’ strengths and contributions; and willing to learn.
These characteristics in a leader help members of a group feel psychologically safe—they feel accepted and respected enough to believe that it is okay to take risks within their group. This allows them to feel more empowered to speak up and share their ideas. According to the study, the climate of psychological safety and empowerment borne from humble leadership makes it easier for members to share their knowledge and learn from each other.
The researchers surveyed 537 teachers across 238 Teaching Research Groups (TRGs), which are professional learning communities for educators in China. Because teachers often work away from their colleagues, such groups are organized to bring them together and reflect on their work—a practice also found in countries like Finland and Singapore.
When done well, TRGs reduce loneliness, encourage learning and even boost the academic achievement of students whose teachers participate in these communities. But the success of these groups relies heavily on their leaders.
Humble leaders are those “who can admit their mistakes, do not exaggerate their accomplishments, do not steal followers’ accomplishments as their own achievement and offer opportunities for other teachers to exhibit their strengths,” lead researcher Jinjie Zhu said in an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine. Zhu was formerly a teaching assistant at Beijing Normal University and is now a doctoral student at Ohio State University. “In the current world, it is very easy to see the case of non-humble leadership.”
For instance, Zhu shared, TRG leaders sometimes take credit for other teachers’ successes, citing their own excellent leadership as the cause. For him, “these non-humble leaders just got antipathy from their subordinates.”
The researchers discussed their findings against a backdrop of literature that portray leaders as “saviors.” But Zhu explained that with so many TRGs across China (and sometimes, within a single school), “it is impossible to expect every TRG leader [to] be a hero.” Moreover, previous studies found that many teachers tend to avoid confrontation in an effort to maintain “superficial harmony.”
In contrast, Zhu said that humble leadership encourages people to feel freer to take risks and share knowledge.
Though people may sometimes see humility as a personal weakness, especially in Western contexts, Zhu explained that their findings on humble leaders support traditional Confucian values, saying, “conceit leads to losses, while modesty brings benefits.” The study highlighted how humility can also be a powerful way to improve teachers’ professional learning and, by extension, the learning of their students.
“Humble leadership theory provides a new look at educational leadership,” Zhu explained. The hope, he said, is for administrators to recognize the importance of followers—or the teachers within the TRGs–and prioritize their knowledge-sharing efforts. “In school, the wisdom of practice is always bottom-up, rather than top-down.”
Source: The Ohio State University ; Image: Freepik