The Power of the Humility Effect


“The X-factor of great leadership is not personality, it’s humility.”
– Jim Collins

I’ll be honest. He wasn’t my first pick. Near the top yes, but he didn’t have my vote. Our small selection committee was trying to choose a keynote speaker for a big event and General Stanley McCrystal was on the short list. I think my gut instinct was that while he was indeed a highly decorated and remarkable leader in his own right, he might not connect in a human and honest way with our audience. I was concerned he would be aloof, imperious, unapproachable.

I got it all wrong. From the moment he arrived, General “call me Stan” McCrystal was gracious, funny, insightful, and willing to share his expertise with humility. Backstage before his presentation, he was generous with his ideas and time, and onstage at the beginning of his presentation he made several amusing self-deprecating jokes about his own professional blunders. Immediately, everyone liked and appreciated his presentation. He was polished, but not distant. Provocative, yet not condescending.

Every time I open up Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, I find some new intriguing piece of research and insight. Most recently, I was captivated by Grant’s description of a study called The Joy of Talking. In this case, now I understand the background behind one of the reasons why General McCrystal is so effective. It’s called the pratfall effect. It was a study conducted by Elliot Aronson at the University of California back in 1966. Basically what he discovered is that highly competent, often superior performing people become more likable when they have a social mishap befall them. It makes them more human, more likable.

Which led me to another study about how people make a positive impression in a more common workplace experience such as a professional interview or sales proposal. As Joanne Silvester and her colleagues confirmed, interview candidates who accept personal responsibility for past mistakes are regarded as stronger candidates than those who instead point to external circumstances beyond their control.

Saying, “I didn’t get the deal because I didn’t prepare well enough” will receive a much more favorable impression on others than saying, “I didn’t get the deal because the competitor’s proposal was stronger” or, “I didn’t get the deal because the requirements changed.”

When we accept personal accountability, with a recognition that we have the ability to make a positive influence on events, relationships and circumstances, we are more likely to leave a positive impression on others. We also develop and reinforce the belief and habit that our actions matter. And when we believe our actions matter, we are more likely to make positive, constructive decisions.