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The dangerous hypocrisy of the humble-bragging leader

THE humble leader is an age-old concept. Only recently, though, have I noticed how many chief executives and politicians have started boasting about how humble they are.

Hardly a week goes by without some high-profile leader somewhere publicly declaring that they have been "humbled" by a promotion, a prize, a successful project, a runaway product launch or a show of employee or customer support that they themselves orchestrated.

There are Hans Vestberg and Stacey Cunningham, humbled to be appointed last year as chief executives of, respectively, Verizon and the New York Stock Exchange. Here is European commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who declared herself "happy for and humbled by the task ahead", as newly confirmed overseer of EU digital and competition policy.

These humble-braggarts should pipe down a little. In particular, when "humbled" becomes a synonym for "proud" something has gone, or is about to go, seriously wrong.

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Adam Neumann proclaimed in 2017 that he was "humbled" by the US$4.4 billion investment WeWork had just won from SoftBank and its Vision Fund, one of the largest investments in a private company.

Last week, the co-founder of the shared-office provider was forced to use the term again. He told staff he had been humbled by the withdrawal of plans for an initial public offering, postponed in part because of his own hubristic efforts to cement control over the loss-making company. Given the entrepreneur's reputation as a charismatic self-publicist, it is fair to say that neither declaration was indicative of true humility.

Boris Johnson announced he was both "humbled and proud" to be named UK foreign secretary in 2016. He certainly lived up to one definition by proving that he was unworthy of the role. Last week, as prime minister, he learnt first-hand another meaning of the term, when his Luxembourg counterpart humiliated him by staging a press conference next to an empty podium that Mr Johnson had declined to occupy, for fear of noisy protesters.

Why all the self-humbling?

In part, I blame Jim Collins, who, in his business best-seller Good to Great, identified a correlation between organisational success and limelight-ducking corporate leaders such as Darwin Smith, who ran paper products company Kimberly-Clark in the 1970s and 1980s without ever seeking celebrity status.

Saying you are humbled by your new leadership role certainly sounds less boastful than saying you deserved the top job (and less unhinged than shrieking that you are "pumped" about it). Humility also happens to be one of the leadership qualities rated highest by under-35s, according to one recent survey. It is surely preferable to being a show-off and a blowhard.

But the hunt for humble leaders has encouraged a whole new school of counter-productive self-promotion. By all means thank the jury that picked you as one of the Sixty Most Self-Effacing Servant-Leaders - that is only polite - but hold off tweeting to your million followers how humbled you are by the honour. Otherwise, you simply draw attention to the yawning gap between what leaders say and what they actually do.

One problem is that humility is not as simple as being modest and keeping a low profile. "The most valuable player (MVP) of a winning team who thanks her teammates but truly believes that the winning outcome of the game was due solely to her contributions would be displaying modesty but lacking humility," one 2005 paper titled Bringing humility to leadership explained.

"In turn, the MVP who announced the true extent of her contributions might appear immodest but as long as she correctly noted the contributions of others could not be said to lack humility."

Truly humble leaders must instead show that they accept their strengths and weaknesses and that they are willing to ask and use help from others, this paper suggested.

For all I know, these traits are shared by Mr Vestberg, Ms Vestager and Ms Cunningham. I see less of them in Mr Johnson or Mr Neumann. All leaders are capable of the sharp-elbowed politicking and naked ambition required to make it to the top. They need to cultivate sufficient self-esteem and self-confidence to stay there. In fact, a strong-willed drive to get on, if directed towards the success of their organisation, is an essential leadership ingredient, alongside genuine humility.

Yet, something about the faux-bashfulness of newly crowned leaders still makes me queasy. It may be the hint of hypocrisy and humbug or the clinging scent of PR soft-soaping. Or it may just be the knowledge that, in many such cases, "humility" comes before a fall. FT