Two studies in Singapore reveal differences in the definition of leadership humility between Eastern and Western cultures. Attributes such as self-awareness and recognizing the strengths and achievements of followers were common and important to both cultures, the Singapore studies showed, however, a number of unique dimensions that are viewed as significantly humble in a culture where one’s place on the hierarchy is important. These unique humility dimensions included leading by example, empathy and approachability.
In recent years, humility has become increasingly accepted as a central feature of great leadership. Bestselling business books such as Good to Great, which considered humility as one of the two core attributes of great ‘level-five’ leaders, speeches and memoirs by business and non-business leaders, and numerous academic papers all highlight the importance of humility in 21st century leadership success. Defining humility can be a challenge, as different thinkers focus on different positive characteristics (once defined in negative terms of feelings of insignificant or inferiority, humility is now nearly unanimously defined as a positive trait). Empathy and kindness towards subordinates, a willingness to admit mistakes and admit the need to learn, and highlighting the contributions of others are some of the positive characteristics of humble leaders often cited.
One question is whether leadership humility is viewed from a Western-centric prism. Perhaps humility in leaders means something completely different in Asian cultures? A team of researchers based in Europe, Asia and the U.S. explored this issue through two studies conducted in Singapore. The first study used semi-structured interviews of 25 Singaporeans, both MBA students and practitioners; the second study was built on emailed surveys to more than 300 Singaporean supervisors. The goal of the studies was to identify, from the participants’ perspectives, the major ingredients of leadership humility, and to discern whether the definition of humility pulled from the Singaporean studies and interviews was significantly different from the definition of leadership humility common in Western writings and research.
Nine dimensions of leadership humility emerged from the two studies. Four of the dimensions were present in the major Western studies and theories of leadership humility:
Five dimensions, however were unique to the Singaporean studies:
Four of the unique dimensions de-emphasize the status and position in the hierarchy of the leader. This type of leadership style is very uncommon in a high power distant culture such as Singapore. In the culture of Singapore and many other Asian countries, inequalities in power are expected and understood as a normal factor in relationships. In this context, to be empathetic and approachable and to show modesty is exceptional behaviour from a leader. Leading by example is also viewed as humble in the Singaporean culture since the leader is willing to do the same type of work as subordinates and is not just content to give out orders. Likewise, working for the good of the collective is another display of rare equality between leader and subordinate.
The top three or four dimensions were sometimes ranked in different order depending on gender, age and organizational level. Nevertheless, the nine dimensions, and especially the five unique dimensions, reveal the emphasis in Asian definitions of humility on ‘humane’ or follower-centred attributes: empathy, consideration, respect and the willingness to forget one’s hierarchical position.
The researchers note the Singaporean focus of the studies and caution against extrapolating the results too widely to all of Asia. Nevertheless, the studies offer a unique perspective on the issue of humble leadership. While intellectually, most leaders will attempt to keep cultural differences in mind as they work with colleagues and subordinates in other countries, such differences are not always evident. Given the wide variety of definitions for humility even within the Western context alone, it is possible to overlook or underestimate leadership humility in an Eastern cultural context. Leading by example and working together for the common good, for example, could have an even greater impact in Asian countries since leaders who freely ignore hierarchy are more rare.
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