On Global Leadership, Humility, Biden and Hopes for the Next Years

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About four years ago my first blog post of the year 2017 was about Trump’s inauguration. Back then I wrote about the feelings of uncertainty and anticipation of an era of protectionism and populism. Four years forward, we are all quite familiar with how his ‘America first’ philosophy turned out, and each of us can hold their own opinions and make evaluations of his presidential legacy. Policies, executive decisions and promises apart though, these last four years were certainly an ongoing global show of Trump’s uncanny and queer personality and leadership style. Indeed, haven’t we all become somewhat desensitized towards Trump’s constant self-promotion, unabashed display of power, lack of moderation, and the regularity of his personal attacks, bullying and stigmatization?

As much as we may have gotten used to it though, now is the time to experience a fresh breeze of change, as president-elect Joe Biden sets a markedly different tone, one of empathy, unity and humility. Let alone my personal preferences, I feel content with Americans’ choice also as a researcher of global leadership. For example, attributes such as humility, integrity, self-reflection and empathy, which clearly don’t correlate with Trump, are important for global leaders to have in the face of the current health crisis. Moreover, the case for being powerful by showing humility is also supported by my latest research on global leaders with Tsedal Neeley (2020). Specifically, we studied how people with positional power enact downward deference and the outcomes of such practices.

We theorized that deference, namely the tendency to accommodate or submit to others, is a crucial behaviour to constitute and reinforce the relationship between a person in a position of power and his or her subordinates. The traditional views of power and leadership have a deeply ingrained expectation of upward-flowing displays of deference, i.e., subordinates accommodating and submitting to higher-ranking individuals. Yet, as our understanding of global leadership evolves and organizational cultures change, new approaches emerge. For example, many seem to embrace Robert Greenleaf’s notion of servant leadership, or selfless as opposed to self-centred leadership. A similar theme comes through in Simon Sinek’s best seller ‘Leaders Eat Last.’ In line with these notions, in our research we set to explore the opposite of classical power structures: downward-flowing deference, a practice of lowering oneself to be equal to that of lower power workers, or simply speaking, humility.

Our study of 115 top global leaders at a large U.S. company suggests that global leaders may enact downward deference when they recognize personal limitations in expertise, networks or influence relative to their subordinates. For example, being a leader in a culturally distant subsidiary is likely to create a greater need to rely on the local team, who understand the culture, the country and know the people. Moreover, our data show that previous experiences in foreign cultures, both in terms of total time spent abroad and exposure to cultures that were distant from their own, correlated with adopting downward deference practices.

So how do leaders defer to their subordinates? Our data revealed two main behavioural dimensions: reduction of social distance, and yielding to the expertise of subordinates. Reduction of social distance emerged as an important set of behaviors. Leaders who practiced downward deference believed in the need to become closer to their local staff. As such, they sought connection, earned trust and worked ’side-by-side’ with their subordinates. Yielding to the expertise of subordinates manifested itself in the acts of trusting and privileging the local team’s judgements and transferring power to subordinates to act locally. Finally, yielding to subordinates’ expertise also meant willingly adapting to local environments and hierarchical expectations. For example, leading a local Thai team might involve granting a private environment for subordinates to ask questions, as public situations are not deemed appropriate for challenging or questioning a leader. By contrast, for leaders that did not enact downward deference there was an expectation of unequivocal compliance to the leader’s directions, as illustrated by one of the study participants: ’I have a coercive style. I would set the direction very actively and drive the team to follow the direction I set. And I will not listen to the objections and opinions as long as I believe the direction I’ve set is right for the company or team.’

As for the outcomes, our study revealed that leaders who enacted downward deference, or simply speaking humility, received higher performance ratings and were promoted to higher executive levels over time compared to their counterparts who did not enact downward deference. All in all, our study supports the notion of humility in global leadership and suggests that downward deference behaviours are important to assess and nurture in global organizations’ talent selection, internal promotion, and development decisions.

Stepping out of the academic world, and daring to generalize these notions, let me voice the positive hope that Biden’s presidential leadership, filled with humility, connection and trust, will bring the necessary positive changes to the global socio-political arena in the coming years.

Here is wishing you all the very best for 2021!


Further reading:

Neeley, T. B., & Reiche, B. S. (November 25, 2020). How Global Leaders Gain Power through Downward Deference and Reduction of Social Distance. Academy of Management Journal. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2019.0531

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