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The Table Video

Peter C. Hill

Does Humility Make a Difference in Leadership? (Part 1 of 3)

Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
July 3, 2019

Psychologist Peter Hill comments on the importance of considering humility in leadership contexts. Part 1 of a 3 part lesson on How to Become a Humble Leader, a free segment included in @BiolaCCT’s ecourse “Seeking Christian Wisdom on Life’s Big Questions.” To register for the course, visit


Hello, I’m Peter Hill. I teach at the Rosemead School of Psychology here at Biola University, and I’m glad to be able to be involved in this course that you’re viewing. I am asked to present particularly on the topic of what is humble leadership. And certainly from a Christian perspective we’re familiar with the notion, at least most of us are, that scriptures talks a lot about humility, and there’s a number of verses that we could talk about.

Certainly one of the most familiar passages is in the Old Testament, Micah Chapter Six, that says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” And then of course many of us might be familiar with the passage in Philippians Chapter Two where we are told to, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than ourselves.” And that we are further on in that chapter it says, “To have this mind among yourselves which was, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God’s something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in human form he humbled himself by coming, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” These are just two of the most familiar passages in scripture that tells us as Christians at least, why humility appears to be important, that this is something that is a proper stance that we have not only to God, but also in relation to each other. Now, most of us at some point in our life, we’re going to be leaders of some sort. Leaders maybe in our work, perhaps it’s going to be leadership in the home, perhaps it’s going to be leadership in the church or in some civic organization.

And it’s obvious that we want to be effective as leaders, and we want to employ all resources that are possible to help us in that effectiveness. And I think one of the possibilities, one, one characteristic that is going to be an important one, in fact it might be surprisingly a very important one, is this characteristic of being a humble leader. Now, it’s Jim Collins who is a popular writer. He wrote a very influential book in the early 2000s and titled Good to Great. And he was studying organizations, organizations that where that had leaders and in often times these were leaders that were former leaders; they eventually left the organization. But they were, he was studying companies in particular that seemed to be very effective companies; they sustained growth after many, many years.

And in these companies, these were good companies that became great companies, hence the name of the book, Good to Great. And he found that the leaders in these companies had an uncanny mix of drive and humility. Now drive was not surprising. These were people who had to have a vision, they wanted to go after that vision, they wanted other people to catch that vision. But humility is what really surprised him, that these leaders also had to demonstrate a certain level of humility. Now Collins himself did not explicate why, but a lot of researchers that found Collins point to be a very interesting point, began to ask the question, why?

What is it about humility that is important in leadership? And I think there are two major things that we can identify. I’m gonna phrase them, I’m a scientist, I do research, and we talk in scientific language a lot, and we call these hypotheses, and I’ll refer to these as two hypotheses. The first one is the social bond hypothesis and this simply states that humble individuals regulate their social bonds well with other people, with whom they are in a relationship with.

Why? Because usually humble people have to acknowledge their own limitations, and they have to have an other oriented interpersonal stance; these are gonna be points that we’re gonna come back to later. But if I judge someone to be humble and I am in relationship with that person, and I see that this is a person who is going to be much more interested in regulating that social bond with me, then I’m more likely to be committed to that relationship. I’m more likely to be committed perhaps to the institution, or to the company, with which that person is the humble leader.

The second hypothesis is what we call the social oil hypothesis and I think this is particularly true, a particularly important hypothesis that we have established now in some of the research literature for leaders in particular. Why? Because this hypothesis suggests that humility helps buffer relationships from the inevitable wear and tear that is often caused by competitive traits. You see, these were still people with visions, these were still people with an idea, and these sometimes had ideas that maybe not everybody would agree with, but they wanted, these leaders wanted to see them through.

And if they come across as humble individuals, then they’re more easily accepted by their subordinates. That’s what we refer to as social oil, there’s less friction in that relationship. So I think it’s very important, not only because scripture tells us to be humble, and we are to be humble and understand our limitations to a sovereign and almighty God, but now we have some empirical research that’s being conducted that suggests that indeed, humility is a very valuable trait in leadership.