Ou, Tsui, Kinicki, Waldman, Xiao, & Song (2014). Humble Chief Executive Officers’ Connections to Top Management Team Integration and Middle Managers’ Responses

Amy Y. Ou- National University of Singapore
Anne S. Tsui- Arizona State University and Peking University
Angelo J. Kinicki- Arizona State University
David A. Waldman- Arizana State University
Zhixing Xiao- George Washington University
Lynda Jiwen Song- Renmin University of China

John Busenbark- Arizona State University
Daniel Newton- Arizona State University

Article link: <a href=”http://asq.sagepub.com/content/59/1/34.abstract&#8221;

Question 1. Why do you think there has a been a recent emergence in the interest of humility in leaders? Can you talk about how this may challenge the conventional notions of dominant, charismatic, and authoritarian characteristics often thought of in a stereotypical leader?

I think the interest in leader humility grows along with a broader interest in servant leadership, spiritual leadership, and Level Five leadership, and along with an even broader interest in positive organizational scholarship in the past two decades.

However, a more substantial boost to this topic is the financial crisis in 2008, or at least, that is why humility grabs my attention. As you said, before 2008, our thoughts about leaders were still about dominance and masculinity, but the financial crisis forced people to think hard about why great leaders fall. It was like a wake-up call that people started to realize that maybe those eye-catching leaders are not always that glamorous and maybe there are other ways to manage organizations.

To some extent, promoting humility seems like challenging the conventional notions of leadership; but in my understanding, humility, as a virtue, has been in the literature for a long time (see our references). People have started to systematically define it, measure it, and test its effects. We are happy that we happened to be the first to test the effects of humble CEOs.

Question 2. Upper echelons research is generally predicated on the notion that observable demographic-type of data about top managers proxy for cognitive processes. Scholars in this area have long sought to delve beyond these proxies, and your manuscript makes remarkable strides in doing so. How can other scholars in upper echelons research use your novel measure to enhance what we know about CEOs and other top managers? For example, while you and your colleagues connected CEO humility with leadership and a downward cascade in the firm, do you think there may be any other effects frequently studied in upper echelons work (e.g., compensation, strategy, board relationships) that might be associated with CEO humility.

Regarding using demographics as proxies for top managers, I think the whole upper echelon research is moving away from doing so, although some tend to use unobtrusive measures (e.g., Donald Hambrick) and some tend to use survey measures like us (e.g., Amy Colbert and James Westphal). While survey measures have the advantage of being more directly gauging into the psychometrics, they can be limited because it is extremely hard to get CEOs or executives from big companies to fill out surveys. In contrast, unobtrusive measures, although to me still proxies, can be handy as researchers can tap into public sources and study bigger samples. In fact, research teams at Florida International University and University of Houston have developed such measures for humility.

I cannot agree more that we should study firm level outcomes of CEO humility. My recent in-press paper at Journal of Management tested that humble CEOs are more likely to reduce their pay gap with other top management team members, adopt an ambidextrous strategic orientation, and have higher financial performance. I love the idea about CEO humility and board relationship!

Question 3. You have extraordinarily rich qualitative data from your discussions and interviews with CEOs. Did you uncover anything interesting from these interviews that maybe did not make it into the manuscript but might serve as an interesting anecdote for the overall story in your article? Was there anything that surprised you in these interviews?

Data collection is fun, and I highly recommend all doctoral students to collect data via visiting companies rather than just on-line surveys. I did observe many interesting things on site. I noticed great variance in CEO offices. One CEO (which I observed as a less humble one) had his personal office as big as a basketball court, where as another CEO (a more humble one) did not care that he had a shabby office where his employees often used it as a temporary storage and filled it with boxes. I also noticed that humility probably had more implications than just motivating top and middle managers. A year after my dissertation, I did a follow-up study with all the companies, but one company could no longer be reached because the CEO (a less humble one in our dataset) had disappeared, taking away all the money.

Anything surprising in the interviews? I think the surprise is that quite some of the ones that I thought that they were humble based on my interview experience turned out to be not so humble based on the ratings of the top management team. I guess it has something to do with the Chinese culture, in which people are more likely to fake humility because the culture values humility more.

Question 4. One of the clear tensions in this article is that humble CEOs may be less “visible” to middle managers, thereby empowering the influence of top management team members. Do you think there could be negative implications of this decrease in visibility? For example, do you think these CEOs may be less apt to be “star” or “celebrity” CEOs? If so, does loss of the benefits associated with that strengthen the need for the TMT to benefit middle managers?

I do not think that lack of visibility is a negative thing. Taoism describes the highest level of leadership in this way: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Eric Schmidt, the ex-Google CEO, likely adopted this Tao philosophy too. He said: “It often feels, at Google, like people are pretty much doing what they think best, and they tolerate having us around.” If a CEO leads a company to sustainable success, why does he/she need to be a star or celebrity?

To your last question, I think it is not that a CEO has to rely on the TMT because he/she does not have celebrity status. It is the other way around: a humble CEO does not claim celebrity status and prefers being an invisible hand, therefore, he/she empowers the TMT to manage the middle managers.

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