To Get Ahead, You Need Both Ambition and Humility
We know that great leadership takes not just intelligence and drive but also the ability to get along well with and learn from others. The key, says Amer Kaissi, is to be both ambitious and humble throughout your career. He’s studied how people succeed across diverse industries and offers advice of how to find a better balance between our desire to achieve and the qualities that earn more respect from colleagues. Kaissi is a professor of healthcare administration at Trinity University and the author of Humbitious: The Power of Low Ego, High Drive Leadership.
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
We’ve been talking about humble leadership for years now, but it still sometimes feels like the most arrogant and ambitious people are the ones getting ahead. I won’t name names, but a few tech world billionaires, populous politicians, rappers, and reality stars come to mind. I’m sure you have bosses and colleagues who also fit the bill. Of course there are counter examples too, smart and confident leaders, who also show humility and use that combination to rise to the top: Mary Barra of GM, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, lots of people at my work and maybe yours. But how exactly do they manage it? How do you stay humble while also proving your worth. How do you advance without showing too much ambition?
My guest today has been setting these issues for years and has some advice on how to get the balance right. Amer Kaissi is a professor of healthcare administration at Trinity University and the author of Humbitious: The Power of Low-Ego High-Drive Leadership. Amer, so glad to have you on the show.
AMER KAISSI: Thank you, Alison. Happy to be here.
ALISON BEARD: Let’s start with some definitions. What do you mean by humility, and how do you measure it?
AMER KAISSI: Yeah. Humility keeps our feet on the ground by allowing us to have an accurate assessment of our own abilities, by understanding our strength and our weaknesses. And there’s been research that has been done for the last 10, 15 years that have allowed us to measure it very objectively in fact. And of course, it’s better to be measured by other people than for it to be self-reported, but we have a lot of measures now that allow us to understand whether a certain individual or a certain leader is humble. For example, are they the kind of person who is self-aware? Are they open-minded and teachable? Are they the kind of person who is grateful for others’ contributions? Do they reach out to others and ask for their input? So, we can measure it in a fairly valid and reliable way based on the research that has been done in the last few years.
ALISON BEARD: Those sound like some of the same building blocks that make up emotional intelligence.
AMER KAISSI: Absolutely. There’s a lot of overlap between humility and emotional intelligence, several aspects of emotional intelligence, such as emotional self-awareness, emotional self-expression, empathy. The difference though is that, with humility, it’s really more about, are you the kind of leader that stays on the grounds? One of the definitions of humility comes back from the origin of the term, which is the Latin humus, H-U-M-U-S. Not to be confused with the Middle Eastern, the hummus, right?
So humus is Latin. And what humus meant for the Romans and for the Greeks is to be close to the ground and close to the earth. So when we apply that definition within the context of leadership, it’s that understanding of the leader who stays on the ground, who stays close to his or her team members who is always in touch with them, and who listens to them with curiosity and with humility.
ALISON BEARD: So someone can be emotionally intelligent, but really arrogant about their emotional intelligence.
AMER KAISSI: Absolutely. And that’s probably a very dangerous combination where you’re using your own emotional intelligence to possibly manipulate others.
ALISON BEARD: And what about ambition? How do you define and measure that?
AMER KAISSI: Yeah. Ambition is about making us reach for the stars by believing in our own greatness, but also in the greatness of the people who work with us. Under ambition, I put a lot of other characteristics such as competence. Competence is non-negotiable, right? We can also put in their confidence, we can put in their greatness or what in history used to be called magnanimity or greatness. Being humble and great, or being humble and magnanimous, creates really a powerful combination for leaders who want to make a lasting impact because that greatness and that humility are two sides of the same coin. You need to trust in your own greatness first, without losing sight that you owe that greatness to supportive people, to positive forces, for example, to luck, to favorable events that happened to you.
ALISON BEARD: And what are some of the documented benefits that we see when we combine these two traits, humility and ambition?
AMER KAISSI: The benefits of humility and ambition can be understood first at the individual level and then in terms of team outcomes but also organizational outcomes. Ambitious people have what we call a growth mindset to connect to Carol Dweck’s work. Brad Owens, who’s a professor at BYU University, wrote his dissertation on this topic and talked about humble people believe that they can become better people than they currently are. His research showed that when you believe that your abilities can grow through hard work and perseverance, you’re more likely to see yourself more accurately, to view others more positively, and to be open to new information.
However, when you see your abilities as fixed, you tend to focus on what is easy for you rather than on pursuing tasks that can help you stretch and grow, and you tend to engage and self-enhancing behaviors. So having that growth mindset, significantly predisposes you to be more humble, and then being more humble makes you also have a more open mindset. So it’s really about thinking about any opportunity in which you interact with others as an opportunity to improve yourself rather than an opportunity to prove yourself.
ALISON BEARD: And what about how the benefits play out in organizations? When leaders are both humble and ambitious, does that improve the performance of their teams?
AMER KAISSI: The humble leaders significantly improve their team’s performance by creating positive conditions. The first aspect of that is psychological safety, which I’m guessing many of the listeners are familiar with that concept. Amy Edmondson’s research in neonatal intensive care units have shown that leaders who invited and appreciated others contributions and included them in important discussions and decisions were more likely to create a psychologically safe environment in their units. So we know that humble leaders create more psychologically safe environment.
There’s also a strong connection between humility and employee engagement. Because humble leaders are transparent about their personal limitations and their willingness to learn from others, they are confident and they’re always presenting themselves as work in progress. As a result, their team members feel validated in their own development efforts since the message from the leaders appears to be, “It’s okay to be work in progress here.” And the research shows us that when team members feel that it’s okay to be work in progress, as we said, their engagement and their motivation to do the work are unleashed. And as a result, they shift from trying to meet external performance standards, such as getting a pay raise, or a promotion, or praise from the boss to more intrinsic motivations, to learn, to master tasks, and to fulfill their, which are all related to high engagement.
ALISON BEARD: But at the same time, you can’t be so humble that you don’t advocate for your team, the resources you need to improve your outcomes. So how do you exercise that ambitious side to make sure you’re getting the performance that you want?
AMER KAISSI: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, it would be impractical, if not, outright naive to say that humility is the only leadership approach in all types of organizations and for all situations. Right? There are some situations where the value of your humility can be limited, or maybe you come across as too humble. Some of the leaders that I coach sometimes are too humble and not ambitious enough. Right? So they are self-aware and they appreciate others, but you don’t hear them talking about themselves or letting others know of the good work that they’re doing. And as a result, their teams may suffer because their teams may not get the attention or the resources that they need. So, what we’re aiming for is this nice balance between the two.
The other aspect of too much humility, that can’t be a good thing is in situations where there are extreme threats, for example, when the status quo of the organization is severely disrupted. Maybe in those situations, the last thing your employees need from you is to be open minded or to be vulnerable. To go back to the healthcare industry, let’s say you’re the CEO of a large hospital on the Florida coast, and you’re preparing for a Category 5 hurricane, and you’re having to rearrange the transfer of hundreds of patients and protecting the safety of your employees. Maybe at that point in time, you don’t need a lot of humility right then. There is little room at that moment for discussion and learning and development. What you need right then is to make a swift decision, to assign responsibilities, to coordinate activities that serve to re-stabilize the situation, and kind of like dissipate people’s fears and securities. One leader once said, when you need to get your soldiers over the hill, it’s not a time to get opinions. Right?
And these are types of situations where a humility may be limited. And that’s why the message of Humbitious is not a humility all the time, an extreme humility, because just like any other strength that we may have, when overused, a humility can actually become counterproductive and may become a weakness.
ALISON BEARD: I imagine that the balance would shift depending on your industry or particular organization or your level in the hierarchy also, not just situationally. Right?
AMER KAISSI: Absolutely. And maybe the best way to think about it, is that there is a range of humbitiousness, a good mix of humility and ambition, but that range, on a scale of one to 10, may be a little bit different depending on the industry, in which you’re in. We talked about healthcare, maybe the range in healthcare is more in the eight to 10 on a scale of one to 10, whereas, as you mentioned earlier in the introduction, in the technology industry, it’s a little bit lower. Right? It is important to understand that the message here is much more nuanced than be humble all the time.
The other aspect of your question asks about stage in your career, which is very important. We get all of the is great stories about leaders who are humble and who are open-minded and who are teachable and all of that things. But most of them are leaders who already achieved a lot of success. They’ve been CEOs for years and years. And yeah, it’s easy to be humble at that point in time when you’ve achieved all the success. And a lot of young leaders, including my graduate students ask about that and say, “Well, we get it. We understand the importance of humility, but what about when we’re just starting our career? If I’m too humble, then I’m not going to be noticed for leadership positions, I’m not going to be noticed for promotions, I’m not going to be noticed for recognition.” So all of these are very valid fears and concerns. Again, the message is a good combination of humility and ambition can help leaders achieve success for themselves, their teams, and their organizations.
If you look at some recent examples with Uber, with [Farenos 00:12:22] and the kind of leaders that they’ve had, the founders who became the leaders of the organization, you can see how high ego is rewarded in these types of industries. But to a certain extent, there still needs to be a dose of humility there, there still needs to be that open-mindedness and self-awareness that tempers some of the narcissism that some of those leaders may have.
ALISON BEARD: We still though have Bezos and Musk at the very top of their field.
AMER KAISSI: There are, there are. And I think sometimes we misunderstand, because even those kind of leaders, you can still see some humility in the way that they deal with their team members. They may have a persona in public that looks to be like a big ego kind of persona, but we rarely go under the hood and ask, “Well, how do they treat their team members? How do they hold their meetings? How good of a listener they are?” Right? These are the things that really matter. One of the most famous examples that is often used to describe someone who probably was not very humble is the example of Steve Jobs. Right?
As we all know, when Jobs first co-founded Apple in 1976, I mean, there was no trace of humility in him. Right? If you read all the books and the articles-
ALISON BEARD: By all accounts, he was a total jerk. Yeah.
AMER KAISSI: Absolutely. Absolutely. Some psychologists would even say that he had narcissistic personality disorder. So, that was in his first stint at Apple. And then, as we all know, there was the power struggle with Apple president and CEO, John Sculley, and Jobs left the company in 1995 and went on to find NeXT and Pixar and all of that. Now, when he came back after 10 years and he became CEO again, during this second stint, though, if you really look closely, he revealed a different leadership style. He was actually more introspective about his limitations. He was more open-minded to other suggestions, and he was more appreciative of the talented people with whom he worked. There’s actually a speech that he gave at Stanford University in 2005, where he talked about that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that happened to him. He described it as an awful tasting medicine, but it’s what the patient needed.
So, what’s interesting about Steve Jobs is that his leadership style in this second stint at Apple, let’s call it Steve.0, appears to be more humble style. Certainly, he still had narcissistic tendencies, but that narcissism was tempered by humility. And it was exactly that unusual combination that allowed him to lead Apple to become this successful company that it became. If we really think about the contributions that Apple has had, most of them happened in the second stint, not in the first stint. And I would argue that it’s that combination of humility, but still confidence in his own abilities and his ability to take bold risks that allowed many of these achievements to happen.
ALISON BEARD: So how does gender play a role here? The two examples that I gave in the intro were Mary Barra and Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand. Those were the first women that popped to my mind. You mentioned Ardern in your book. Was that me being biased toward women, or do you find that women are better at humble leadership than men?
AMER KAISSI: That is a very important question to ask. I did not address it directly in the book because there have been other books written on that, but nonetheless, it’s a very important question. So let’s take the example of Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand. When she became prime minister, she was one of the youngest leaders in the world. And when you have a young leader who is showing humility, showing compassion, showing empathy, typically there are a lot of doubters out there. Right? And some of that doubt is because she’s young, but much of it was because of her gender. So, all of these forces are in place and people are starting to doubt her or cynical about her success.
And then, the Christchurch terrorist attacks happen in New Zealand. Here you see ambitiousness in action, and you see how a female leader like her and a young leader like her just really responds with a textbook leadership response. First, she starts with being humble, being empathetic, being compassionate. And she mourns with the families of the victims, she spends time with them. She deflects attention from herself towards the victims. But then within a week, ambition kicks in, action kicks in, courage kicks in. And she goes to Congress in New Zealand, and she passes gun control laws within a couple weeks. So we see her humbitiousness in action, and we may ask ourselves, first, if this was a male leader, would there have been so many question marks about them earlier on? And then, if it was a male leader, would they have had that much humility and compassion and empathy when the events happened?
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And obviously, there are men who could perform in the same way, but on average, women are more likely to?
AMER KAISSI: I would say that is probably the best way to describe it. I’m sure we all have worked for, and with, male leaders who have displayed all of these humble and ambitious traits that we’re talking about, but the research shows that on average, women tend to do better on that.
ALISON BEARD: Okay. Let’s talk about practicalities. What can I do? What can anyone do today or tomorrow to cultivate humility?
AMER KAISSI: Absolutely. And I will preface this by saying that all of these are going to of sound like common sense. Unfortunately, it’s not commonly practiced.
ALISON BEARD: That’s all of management advice.
AMER KAISSI: Exactly. Exactly.
ALISON BEARD: It’s all really common sense, but no one does it right.
AMER KAISSI: Hundred percent. So the first practice that I would share is self-reflection with purpose, especially after a major success. You’ve got promoted, or you got a salary raise, or you got recognized, give yourself credit, celebrate, but also make sure that you take some time for some self-reflection and to ponder some hard questions such as, who mentored me? Who gave me my chances as a leader? How many people on my team are doing a great job? How did luck contribute to my success? So these kind of questions are what helped us stay grounded and humble. And then the next step would be to show appreciation and to show gratitude towards all the people that have helped you and have contributed to your success.
The second one, and this is one that you’ve heard so many times before, but it remains so important and so hard to practice, which is listening to reply rather than listening to understand. Right? If you really think about it, listening to reply is self-centered.
When I’m listening to reply, I can’t wait for the mouth of the other person to stop moving, so I can do jump in and tell them everything that I know and how smart I am and how knowledgeable I am.
ALISON BEARD: What about becoming more ambitious? If you’re a person who has the intelligence and humility to be a great leader, but you don’t have the desire to climb the ranks, can you change that? Should you change that?
AMER KAISSI: Here, we have to try to understand why is it that you don’t have the desire. If you don’t think that you want to be CEO or executive or director, any of that, and you are okay with it, then in that case, I think your ambition may manifest itself in a different way. Right? Your ambition is not to climb the ladder, but your ambition is to be doing meaningful work, to be doing fulfilling work. In that way, you can focus on that ambition. Now, if you want to become a top leader but you just lack the ambition to do it, or most likely, it’s you lack the belief in yourself, you lack the self-esteem, you lack the assertiveness that comes with the self-esteem, then that’s a different question. And of course, that, just like humility, can be a muscle that we can work on.
Again, I coach some leaders who have all the humility in the world, but don’t have the assertiveness that come with it. So often there are conversations going on and they have something really good to contribute to the conversation, but they wait and they say, “Well, what if what I say is wrong? Or what if what I say is not perceived well?” And they wait and wait, and the conversation goes on, and they never contribute. So for these kind of leaders, I believe the work should be more on, first, the self-esteem or know where is the lower self-esteem coming from, why you don’t believe in yourself, in your own worth. And then, in the assertive behaviors, how to go from passive behaviors in meetings, in conversations and interactions with others to more assertive behaviors?
ALISON BEARD: And one last question, how did you personally get interested in this topic? I know you were in healthcare settings, but is there sort of an earlier inspiration? Would you describe yourself as a humble leader? Have you worked for humble leaders?
AMER KAISSI: Yeah. Probably one of the reasons is, some events that took place in my childhood. So, I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and actually, I was born one year after the Lebanese Civil War happened. And being in a civil war has its own complications and implications, but one of the implications of that was obviously a lot of people were dying and a lot of children were losing their parents. So, my mom actually worked at an orphanage. She was the director of the orphanage. And given that she worked there, her work hours were very long, so she worked evenings every day and most weekends and holidays and summer vacations and all of that. Because of that, I tended to go with her after school, on the weekend, and during the summer, and I would spend time at the orphanage with the kids.
I was one of the kids. She would drop me off in the morning and then she would pick me up in the afternoon during summer days. And I would spend every minute of the day with the orphan kids. I ate with them. I played with them. I did everything with them. And I still remember clearly on my eighth birthday, my parents were asking me, “Do you want to have a party? Do you want to invite your friends from school?” And I said, “Yeah, I actually want to have a party, but I don’t want to invite the friends from school. I want to invite my friends from the orphanage.” And my parents said, “Sure, let’s do that.” And we ended up inviting a group of 30 orphans to our house. For many of those, this was the first proper birthday party that they’ve ever been to.
Now, I shared that story as probably one of the earliest experiences that shaped me in a way that allowed me to become a little bit more humble in terms of understanding that you can relate to people, you can be close to people regardless of their social class, regardless of their economic situation. Right? So, that experience kind of planted the seed of humility. And I say that while understanding the risk of, bragging about my own humility. So I will always say, it planted the seed. Now, whether that’s seed have flourished or not throughout my life and my career, that’s a different question, but it was probably one of those things that make you feel a little bit more close to other people and more open minded to different experiences.
ALISON BEARD: Amer, thanks so much for being on the show. I really enjoyed talking with you.
AMER KAISSI: Thank you so much. I appreciate being here.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Amer Kaissi, professor of healthcare administration at Trinity University. He’s the author of Humbitious: The Power of Low-Ego, High-Drive Leadership.
If you like this episode and want to hear more like it, check out episode 809 with my co-host, Curt Nickisch, and consultant, Susan McPherson on why we need to focus on connecting, not just networking.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.