Intellectual Humility – A Prerequisite For Great Leadership In Modern Workplaces

Traditional view of leadership traits suggested that effective leaders must stand firm on their decisions at all times and defend them if the need arises. Modern workplaces however are different. New age leaders in order to be effective must embrace humility. Honesty, sincerity and selflessness are the markers of humility and considered prized traits in modern leaders. Intellectual humility is one more step forward. It means that one’s beliefs and point of view can be wrong. According to Mark Leary, a Duke university professor, intellectual humility is all about recognizing the fact that the things one believes in might be incorrect. It is a constant enquiry to know what is correct. It does not mean that leaders who possess intellectual humility are lacking in confidence or they are prone to keep changing their minds all the time. Far from it, it is all about respecting others point of view, even if one is convinced about their own opinion. People having good leadership traits listen to others with an open mind and seek the truth even if it leads them to junk their own views.

Good leaders do have superior intellectual ability, it is true. But applauding leaders only for this trait can breed arrogance. Arrogant and egotistical leaders start operating from a position of moral superiority and think that their opinions are far superior to their team members. This attitude makes them think that their opinions are the only ones that are correct. Wise leaders shun this attitude. They accept their vulnerability. They know that they can be wrong. They are in search of truth, not be proven right at all times.

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An interesting survey conducted by journalist Shane Snow threw up baffling results. About ¾ of the adults surveyed claimed that they were more open minded than the average person. This is a statistical impossibility! It shows that most people have cognitive biases that they think they do not have. There is a clear need to change our view point.

Intellectual humility is about being open to changing one viewpoint, keeping the door open. It is a great intellectual virtue. It is about finding an appropriate solution, not winning arguments. Best solutions are found when there is diversity of thought. On the other hand, intellectually arrogant leaders appreciate viewpoints that echo their own. Such leaders do not have the basic requisite of what makes a good leader.

Leaders that are open to opposing views possess intellectual humility which is one of the most important characteristic of a good leader. These leaders think critically, pay more attention to facts and have greater mindfulness. Intellectually humble leaders show a willingness to accept that they are/can be wrong and learn from their mistakes. For without mistakes there can be no learning. The work culture that equates errors with ignorance needs to go. Intellectual humility empowers a leader to let go of the noxious notion of being perfect all the time.

Good leaders have the wisdom to understand that problems are solved due to team work. Different team leaders bring different ways of looking at a problem and finding solutions becomes easier. Google looks for intellectual humility in the people they hire. When people notice that their leaders are intellectually humble, they feel more included in the team. Leadership traits dictate that leaders must lead with questions rather than providing solutions, they must encourage the team members to come up with ideas. Humble leaders are able to put their egos aside and have teams that are more collaborative.

Author Edgar Shein’s book, The Humble Enquiry, talks about knowledge being more important than formal position. In other words, humble leaders acknowledge that many a time team members know about a situation more or better than them, at such times these team members are in a superior position. Mark Leary’s (Duke University) research makes him believe that intellectual humility is instrumental in developing stronger relationships. Intellectually humble leaders are more effective leaders. The sad part is, that even today, too many leaders prefer to fail instead of taking help or depending on their juniors.

So what does one do to become an intellectually humble leader? The first step is to admit that one can have cognitive blind spots. A good leader must display critical thinking by giving importance to facts, by realizing that he can be wrong and by putting his ego aside. It is perfectly ok to admit one’s mistake, in fact subordinates are greatly appreciative of such bosses.

Good leadership qualities are all about working collectively. A leader alone cannot make things happen. Every successful leader is successful only because of a team of people he works with. Transforming people into change agents is what makes a good leader.

Leaders must learn to understand that their reputation as a great leader does not get jeopardized by acknowledging their mistakes. Instead of defending their point of view at all costs, they must invest their time and energy in finding the truth. Another very important characteristic of a good leader is his ability to generate constructive discussions. The pre requisites for a productive conversation are respect, empathy and real listening. Such discussions lead to fruitful integration of conflicting views. Inclusivity rather than exclusivity should be the guiding principle of a good leader. Inclusive leaders empower their subordinates to lead.

Intellectual humility promotes a healthy work culture where there is no fear of displeasing the boss. It encourages people to present alternate viewpoints. Good leaders are invested in empowering their subordinates by making it safe for them to challenge the status quo. Such an environment allows subordinates also to own their mistakes as they are not fearful any more. Such employees learn to experiment more leading to greater creativity.

While it is true that perfect intellectual humility is something that cannot be achieved, leaders nevertheless persevere to continuously develop self awareness. It is a process that must go on. A wise leader is infinitely better than a smart one.  


  • Intellectual humility can make you a better leader. Gustavo Razzetti. July 18, 2019
  • Intellectual humility can make you a more effective leader. May 10, 2017

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