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The Surprising Quality That Separates Great Leaders From Average Ones

The Surprising Quality That Separates Great Leaders From Average Ones

You might assume that the strongest leaders are those who can accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses, and know exactly how they’re coming across to their employees.

Instead, according to new research, leaders who underestimate their own competence are the most effective and have the most engaged employees.

The research was conducted by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, and the findings were recently reported in The Harvard Business Review.

Zenger/Folkman looked at 360-degree assessments for 69,000 managers rated by 750,000 respondents at hundreds of firms. They found that most leaders’ perceptions of themselves didn’t align with others’ perceptions of them — leaders thought they were either more or less effective than they really were.

As you might expect, leaders who overestimated their own competence were the least effective. But the surprising finding was that leaders who underestimated their own competence were the most effective. Likewise, leaders who underestimated themselves had the most engaged employees.

In other words, having a distorted view of your own abilities can in some cases be helpful.

It’s unclear why exactly leaders who underestimate their competence are the most effective. But Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, CEO and president of Zenger/Folkman, say, “We assume this is caused by a combination of humility, high personal standards, and a continual striving to be better.”

That theory jibes with other research on the components of effective leadership.

According to a recent Catalyst report, humility is one of four leadership behaviors that help create an environment where all employees feel included. Humility in this case refers to admitting mistakes, learning from criticism, and soliciting others’ contributions to overcome your limitations.

Another study of Chinese executives found that humble CEOs tend to do a better job of empowering managers at lower levels of the organization. That means they behave in a way that enhances the meaningfulness in work, encourages participation in decision-making, expresses confidence in high performance, and facilitates autonomy.

Of course, Zenger and Folkman acknowledge that there are some potential downsides to underestimating yourself. For example, leaders who do so might be less willing to take on more challenging assignments.

One way to make leaders realize that they are in fact capable of assuming challenges is by regularly asking for 360-degree feedback. That way, they can be pleasantly surprised when they realize that others have been highly impressed with their performance.

Author: Shana Lebowitz
Shana is a strategy reporter for Business Insider. Before joining Business Insider in April 2015, she covered mental health for Greatist and personal finance for LearnVest. Shana studied English and psychology at Brandeis University and received her master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University.

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