Followers don’t want a superman!
by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

Do you admit your mistakes?

Do you focus on your people’s strengths instead of harping on their weaknesses?

Do you come across as a teachable person?

If you said, “I do” to all three above, then you possess the attributes that lie at the heart of humble leadership.

Humble leaders accept their own limitations but do not demonize followers for theirs. Humble leaders are always looking for ways to improve themselves.

Followers prefer humble leaders. Followers neither want nor need a superman as their leader.


Because a superman-leader wouldn’t know what it’s like to have many weaknesses and what it feels like to grapple with everyday human struggles. Superman-leaders would have expectations that are too lofty for the ordinary follower to live up to. Superman-leaders are easily irritated with our so-called ineptness. Superman-leaders do not have the capability to be humble; and in the unlikely event that they show any signs of humility, we greatly suspect such sentiment to be faked.

On the other hand, a leader’s ability to admit mistakes, to focus on other people’s strengths and to be willing to learn shows his followers that he is willing to grow just as his followers are also striving to grow. Followers can identify and resonate with such an authentic leader.

Research evidence
What research evidence do we have, which concludes that these attributes of humble leadership are powerful predictors of effective leadership and organizational growth?

The evidence comes from a study conducted by Bradley Owens, Assistant Professor of Organization and Human Resources at the University of Buffalo School of Management, and David Hekman, Assistant Professor of Management at the Lubar School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, on 16 CEOs, 20 mid-level leaders and 19 frontline leaders from diverse organizations – from military and health care, to financial services and religious bodies. Subjects were asked to describe in detail how humble leaders conduct themselves at the workplace and how a humble leader behaves differently from a non-humble one.

Owens explains that despite the embarrassment of failure, humble leaders are able to overcome their fears and share their feelings as they deal with their own personal growth process, thereby earning the favour of their followers. In addition, these leaders support their followers’ own growth journeys, and this leads to higher performing organizations.

Becoming, not Pretending
Humble leaders who show their humanity are more desirable than superman-leaders who project an invincible front. This is because humble leaders who are in the continuous process of “becoming” better are held in higher esteem than leaders who are “pretending” to be what their followers know they are not.

What advice do Owens and Hekman offer in the light of their study?

You can’t fake humility. You either genuinely want to grow and develop or you don’t.”

The leader’s desire to grow has a powerful effect on the followers. Realizing that missteps and uncertainty are acceptable in the growing process, they thrive. As a result, the organization continues to grow and improve.

So are you becoming or pretending to be an effective leader? Whatever your response is, your followers would have already answered that question for themselves. Do you dare to find out?