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Journal of Managerial Psychology

Leader humility and psychological empowerment: investigating contingencies

Chang-Wook Jeung Hea Jun Yoon
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Chang-Wook Jeung Hea Jun Yoon , (2016),"Leader humility and psychological empowerment:
investigating contingencies", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 31 Iss 7 pp. 1122 - 1136
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Leader humility and
psychological empowerment:
investigating contingencies
1122 Chang-Wook Jeung
Received 15 July 2015
Yonsei Business Research Institute,
Revised 20 December 2015 Yonsei University, Seoul, Republic of Korea, and
6 July 2016
Accepted 11 July 2016 Hea Jun Yoon
Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training (KRIVET),
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Sejong, Republic of Korea

Purpose – In line with emerging conceptualizations of humility in organizations, the purpose of this
paper is to examine how leader humility and distance-based factors (i.e. power distance orientation
(PDO) and hierarchical distance) interact to predict follower psychological empowerment.
Design/methodology/approach – The authors tested the hypotheses using a sample of 294
employees in South Korea. Moderated regression and bootstrapping analyses were conducted to test
for direct and moderated relationships.
Findings – Results indicated that leader humility positively predicted follower psychological
empowerment, and followers’ PDO positively moderated this relationship. Results of a three-way
interaction indicated that the impact of leader humility on follower psychological empowerment was
strongest when both followers’ levels of PDO and hierarchical distance were high.
Practical implications – Humility can provide a new lens through which to understand the
leadership process. Beyond anecdotal accounts, this study provided strong evidence for the value of
humility on the list of qualities essential for successful leadership.
Originality/value – This is the first study to provide empirical evidence for the moderating effect of
PDO and hierarchical distance on the relationship between leader humility and follower empowerment.
The findings highlight the benefits of understanding the roles of followers’ cultural value orientation
and hierarchical position in the effectiveness of leader humility.
Keywords Hierarchical distance, Psychological empowerment, Power distance, Leader humility
Paper type Research paper

Avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men (Lao Tzu).
Leaders are deemed to be superior beings. As Morris et al. (2005) noted, “leaders began
to be treated as heroes not necessarily because of anything that they did, but simply
because they were leaders” (p. 1325). Humility has been a long neglected area of
leadership research as the notion tends to be equated with low self-regard and
underestimation of one’s ability (Oc et al., 2015). However, in the aftermath of corporate
scandals, which have been ascribed to abuse of power, hubris, and deceit in top
executives, there seems to be an increased interest in humility as a fundamental virtue
connoting self-awareness, openness, and transcendence (Morris et al., 2005). Indeed,
today’s leaders may fail to respond properly to complex problems in relying on the
top-down approach and must admit their limitations and embrace the input of others
Journal of Managerial Psychology
Vol. 31 No. 7, 2016
pp. 1122-1136 This research was supported by Global PhD Fellowship Program through the National Research
© Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Foundation of Korea (NRF) funded by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea
DOI 10.1108/JMP-07-2015-0270 (grant number: 2015H1A2A1032037).
(Ancona et al., 2007). As a bottom-up form of leadership, humility is not self-deprecation Leader
but a neglected source of human strength reflecting accurate self-appraisal and humility and
appreciation of others’ worth (Tangney, 2000).
Leader humility has received growing attention recently in organizational research
(e.g. Frostenson, 2015) along with an advancement in measurement of the construct. empowerment
Accordingly, substantial progress has been made in understanding the relationships
between humble leadership and positive consequences. However, research devoted to 1123
boundary conditions that may moderate the humility effects has been scarce. Particularly,
less attention has been paid to how subordinate-based moderators function in the humble
leadership process. Although subordinate characteristics have been viewed as a key
situational contingency category (Kerr and Jermier, 1978), the emphasis has largely been on
the attributes of humble leaders to date. The present study spotlights the followers by
investigating the potential moderators between leader humility and follower empowerment.
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Special emphasis on the role of the less powerful is pertinent because humility is viewed as
the core of the bottom-up approaches to leadership (Owens and Hekman, 2012).
The purpose of this study was to investigate whether leader humility significantly
improves the level of follower psychological empowerment and to identify the conditions
under which humble leadership is more or less effective. We sought to investigate
whether leader humility operated differently in association with two moderators:
followers’ power distance and hierarchical distance between leaders and followers.
Hollander (2009) argues that followers can affect the strength of a leader’s influence by
their role in accepting the leader. We chose power distance orientation (hereafter PDO)
because it refers to people’s ideas about what is acceptable in leader-follower
relationships. While an unequal distribution of power is a manifest characteristic of any
organization, the acceptance and endorsement of authority and power difference varies
across individuals. Such variances reflect individual differences in cultural values, which
guide the way followers, as social actors, choose actions, and evaluate their leaders
(Schwartz, 1999). Similarly, we chose hierarchical distance, which is most obviously
manifested in hierarchical level differences between upper level leaders and subordinates
(Antonakis and Atwater, 2002) and may influence the likelihood that cultural value of
power distance will be activated. Indeed, Owens et al. (2012) pointed out that how power,
status, and individual characteristics simultaneously influence humility is an important
question in research on humble leadership.
This study contributes to the literature on humility in two fundamental ways. First, to
the best of our knowledge, this is the first study investigating the relationship between
humility and psychological empowerment. In such an endeavor, we highlight how
humble leader behaviors link to intrinsic motivational aspects of empowerment. Given
the central role of psychological empowerment as a mediator in the leadership literature,
it is meaningful to explore the influence of leader humility on psychological
empowerment because it has provided a basis for understanding the mediating
mechanism through which leadership affects followers’ performance and, ultimately,
organizational success. Further, we examine the moderating effects of subordinate-based
contingency factors in the humility-empowerment relationship. Exploring contingencies
and identifying the underlying logic expand the present spectrum for humble leadership.

Theoretical background
Leader humility and psychological empowerment
Owens et al. (2013) defined humility as an interpersonal characteristic that indicates
“(a) a manifested willingness to view oneself accurately, (b) a displayed appreciation of
JMP others’ strengths and contributions, and (c) teachability” (p. 1518). This definition
31,7 encompasses observable behavioral expressions of humility that emerge in social
contexts (Owens and Hekman, 2012). Humble leadership may be an antecedent of
follower psychological empowerment. From a psychological perspective,
empowerment embraces the individual subjective experience of being empowered
(Laschinger et al., 2004). According to Conger and Kanungo (1988), empowerment is an
1124 enabling rather than a delegating process. They argued that enabling processes create
conditions for promoting task motivation through a process of enhancing self-efficacy.
Based on four cognitions reflecting an individual’s orientation to his or her work role,
Spreitzer (1995) developed a four-dimensional scale to measure psychological
empowerment and operationalized four cognitive dimensions: meaning, competence,
self-determination, and impact. Scholars have argued that psychological empowerment
highlights individual subjective experiences influenced by contextual factors and social
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interaction in the workplace (Seibert et al., 2004).

The concept of leader humility suggests that humble leader behaviors can
empower followers by influencing facets of their self-concept and the way they view
their work (Owens and Hekman, 2012). First, humble leaders enhance a sense of the
meaning of work by appreciating their followers’ strengths and values and helping
them recognize the significance of their contribution to organizational outcomes.
Additionally, humble leaders are less self-focussed and more likely to demonstrate
self-transcendent attitudes than other leaders (Ou et al., 2014), which may provide the
impression to followers that their work is valuable, affecting the way they view their
contributions. Second, leader humility can enhance followers’ competence. Humble
leaders appreciate others’ positive worth and contribution (Morris et al., 2005).
Being appreciated by their leader signals to followers that their capability to achieve
a high level of performance has been acknowledged. Third, humble leaders provide
followers with opportunities for self-determination when such leaders admit their
limitations and show themselves to be open to new or contradictory ideas (Tangeny,
2002). Leader humility includes an orientation toward others and implies a
courageous decision to give up a certain portion of power, which is naturally shifted
to followers (Owens and Hekman, 2012). Humble leaders tend to have no need for
dominance over others, and then their followers are more likely to have freedom to
initiate tasks with a sense of self-determination. Lastly, humble leaders foster their
followers’ involvement in decision making by showing a genuine appreciation of their
strengths and efforts and expressing willingness to learn from others (Owens et al.,
2013). Followers who have experienced leader humility may acquire control beliefs,
which entail having necessary knowledge, expertise, resources, and opportunities to
engage in a behavior (Gagné, 2009). They may feel that their own behaviors are
making a difference to work outcomes, increasing their sense of impact. Building on
the above argument, we hypothesized:
H1. Leader humility positively relates to follower psychological empowerment.

Power distance orientation

Power distance is defined as the extent to which members of an organization expect
power to be distributed unequally and serves as the basis of the cultural value system
for less powerful members (Hofstede et al., 2010). Following Kirkman et al. (2009), who
coined the term, PDO, to distinguish it from power distance at the macro level, we use
the term PDO to indicate an individually held cultural value of power distance.
Followers with high-PDO accept a hierarchy that differentiates them from their Leader
leaders, who hold the right of resource allocation, rewards, and punishment (Lee, 1997). humility and
Under these conditions, they tend to comply with their leaders’ explicit orders without
resistance and show reverence to authority figures. In line with this perspective, Ji et al.
(2015) suggested that subordinates in high-power-distanced contexts must be cautious empowerment
when interacting with their supervisors because subordinates might worry about being
viewed as incompetent to their supervisors. However, humble leaders sacrifice certain 1125
amounts of power and resources created by and embedded in their organizational
hierarchies (Owens et al., 2012). For high-PDO followers, therefore, leader humility is
considered to be at odds with their values of power, and such humble behaviors
(e.g. showing openness to learning and new ideas from followers) can provide a social
cue representing supervisors’ credentials, open-mindedness, and magnanimity toward
the less powerful (Lian et al., 2012). Accordingly, followers are more likely to be inspired
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by humble leader behaviors characterized as a bottom-up approach.

Furthermore, it can be assumed that high-PDO employees are more likely to view
humble leaders through rose-colored glasses. Followers with high-PDO can view leaders’
humble behaviors as a way of displaying recognition and compliment, thereby leading to
followers’ enhanced intrinsic motivation. Like Bandura’s (1977) verbal persuasion, humble
leaders’ appreciation, and seeking feedback can be a key source of sense of empowerment.
Conversely, followers with low-PDO may be less sensitive to power discrepancy because
they expect mutual equality and informal consultation with their superiors. For low-PDO
followers, humble behaviors are more likely to serve as a modest indication that leaders
seek help or feedback from subordinates. Because such followers already expect to be
consulted by leaders based on a give-and-take standpoint, the effect of leader humility on
their psychological empowerment might be less strong than in high-PDO followers.
Consistent with our position, Carl et al. (2004) argued that the benefits from empowerment
might be great for high-power distance followers who otherwise might not feel
encouraged to initiate actions or make suggestions. Taken together, we contend that PDO
moderates the effect of leader humility on psychological empowerment. While followers
with high-PDO believe that leaders are superior and make more reliable decisions, humble
leadership reflects leaders’ developmental readiness and receptiveness to others’ ideas
(Owens et al., 2013). As such, leaders’ paradoxical humble behaviors foster followers’
heightened sense of power. Therefore, we hypothesized:
H2. PDO moderates the relationship between leader humility and follower
psychological empowerment such that the relationship is stronger when
follower PDO is high than when it is low.

Hierarchical distance
The dynamics of the leadership process differ depending on how close or distant
followers are from their leader (Antonakis and Atwater, 2002). We posit leader-follower
distance as a key contingency moderating the relationship between leader humility and
follower psychological empowerment. Drawing on Cole et al.’s (2009) operationalization,
in which social distance is viewed as the difference in hierarchy levels between leader
and follower, we focus on the formal rank distance in organizational hierarchies and
hypothesize that the relationship between humility and psychological empowerment
will be stronger when formal rank distance is high. This is supported by Cole et al.’s
(2009) study, which demonstrates that hierarchical distance may enhance or reduce the
effects of leadership depending on the nature of follower outcomes.
JMP Followers have different expectations of leaders in accordance with their leaders’
31,7 levels in organizational hierarchies. As noted by Magee and Galinsky (2008), high rank
in a hierarchy is more rewarding than low rank because leaders in higher positions
have control over vital resources and enjoy reverence from followers. Thus,
hierarchically distant leaders are considered more powerful and competent. Leaders in
higher positions in the formal hierarchy may be given more credit for humble
1126 behaviors than those in lower positions. Owens and Hekman (2012, p. 796) described
that humility could be effective only to the degree that leaders were perceived by
followers as competent; they further argued that attributions of leader competence
often relied on external signals of authority. The notion of empowerment is inherent in
organizational hierarchies by virtue of the fact that psychological empowerment
involves the delegation of authority perceived by followers (Hechanova-Alampay and
Beehr, 2001). In sum, differences in formal rank between leaders and followers may lead
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to differential effects of leader humility on followers’ psychological empowerment.

Therefore, we hypothesized:
H3. Hierarchical distance moderates the relationship between leader humility and
follower psychological empowerment such that the relationship is stronger
when hierarchical distance is high than when it is low.
Furthermore, the strength of leader humility can be affected by the combination of
followers’ PDO and hierarchical distance. In particular, we contend that humble
leadership enhances psychological empowerment in those with high-PDO when
hierarchical distance is high. For those with low-PDO, high hierarchical distance may
not be considered as a dominant factor to influence their level of empowerment because
they perceive that power is distributed equally regardless of organizational ranks, and
power bases are transient and sharable (Carl et al., 2004). For high-PDO followers,
however, leader humility indicates positive intangible reinforcers stemming from
upper-level management because even employees in lower-level positions are
considered key sources of learning and insights for humble leaders. Here, high-PDO
followers are more likely to view leaders of higher rank as having greater control over
valued resources. High-PDO followers do not doubt leaders’ competence even though
the leaders disclose personal limitations. Rather, expressing leader humility may be
viewed as a more respectable virtue due to the leader’s formal position power in the
hierarchy. This is consistent with Owens and Hekman’s (2012) statement that humbly
acknowledging weakness can be viewed as a distinctive form of strength, particularly
in the case of leaders with the positional power.
In sum, individual PDO reflects belief in the legitimacy of power inequalities
between leader and followers, and hierarchical distance may impact the likelihood that
cultural value of power distance is activated. Because the level of credibility arising
from hierarchical levels can affect leader effectiveness, humility expressed by a leader
with a higher position would have a stronger influence than that of a supervisor with a
lower position in the hierarchy. Based on our theoretical reasoning, we expect the
possibility of a three-way interactive effect of leader humility, PDO, and hierarchical
distance on follower psychological empowerment:
H4. PDO and hierarchical distance jointly moderate the relationship between
leader humility and follower psychological empowerment. The relationship
is stronger when PDO is high and hierarchical distance is high than when either
or both are low.
Methods Leader
Sample humility and
The data were collected from a Korean business conglomerate, which owns large
multinational corporations, including three Fortune 500 companies. In collaboration
with its human resource development center, 500 paper questionnaires were distributed empowerment
to employees during their training sessions. In total, 303 employees participated in the
survey. Seven cases were omitted due to severe missing data. An outlier test based on 1127
Mahalanobis distance (D2) detected two abnormal cases, which were also eliminated. In
addition, missing values were imputed using the conditional mean imputation. The
data set thus included 294 cases, and the response rate was 58.8 percent.
Of the 294 participants, 251 were male (85.4 percent). The average age was 37.44
years. Almost 90 percent of the participants had four-year college degrees or advanced
degrees. With respect to formal rank, the participants were employed in a variety of
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positions (11.9 percent clerks/senior clerks, 15.3 percent assistant managers, 8.8 percent
middle managers, 61.6 percent senior managers, and 2.4 percent general managers).
We also asked the rank of each participant’s direct supervisor (0.7 percent clerks/senior
clerks, 2.7 percent assistant managers, 7.8 percent managers, 19.1 percent senior
managers, 57.1 percent general managers, 12.3 percent executive managing directors,
and 0.3 percent senior executive managing directors). The average tenure was 7.36
years with a range of two weeks to 24 years. Participants had spent 2.46 years on
average with their current direct supervisors.

All items were measured on seven-point Likert-type scales with anchors of 1 (disagree
strongly) and 7 (agree strongly). As the study was conducted in Korea, we prepared a
Korean version of the questionnaire using the forward and backward translation.
Leader humility. A measure developed by Owens et al. (2013) was used to measure
humility of participants’ direct supervisors. The measure comprises three items in each
of three subdimensions (i.e. willingness to view oneself accurately, appreciation of
others’ strengths, and teachability). Following Owens et al. (2012), we measured leader
humility according to the immediate subordinate’s perception. A sample item includes
“My direct supervisor is willing to learn from others.” Internal consistency was 0.96
(0.86, 0.90, and 0.95, respectively, for each subdimension). The second-order CFA
showed an acceptable fit ( χ2[24] ¼ 86.17, χ2/df ¼ 3.59, CFI ¼ 0.98, IFI ¼ 0.98,
RMSEA ¼ 0.09, SRMR ¼ 0.03) with values for all factor loadings exceeding 0.79.
Three subdimensions also loaded on the main latent variable (0.97, 0.91, and 0.96).
While the multidimensional structure showed a significantly better fit (Δχ2[3] ¼ 139.68,
p o 0.001) than the one-factor model ( χ2[27] ¼ 225.85, χ2/df ¼ 8.37, CFI ¼ 0.93,
IFI ¼ 0.93, RMSEA ¼ 0.16, SRMR ¼ 0.04), the three subdimensions were strongly
correlated (i.e. 0.87 o r o 0.93, p o 0.001).
Power distance orientation. Following Kirkman et al. (2009), an eight-item instrument
developed by Earley and Erez (1997) was used to measure the extent to which an
individual is oriented to power distance as a cultural value. A sample item includes
“Employees should not express disagreements with their managers.” Consistent with
previous studies (see Kirkman et al., 2009), the measure demonstrated marginally
acceptable internal consistency (0.70). The CFA showed a marginal fit ( χ2[20] ¼ 85.44,
χ2/df ¼ 4.27, CFI ¼ 0.83, IFI ¼ 0.84, RMSEA ¼ 0.10, SRMR ¼ 0.06) with factor loadings
above 0.40. Using the modification indices, items 1 and 7 (related to subordinates’
JMP participation in decision making) and items 2 and 3 (related to leader’s authority
31,7 and expected obedience) were allowed to covary. The fit significantly improved to
χ2[18] ¼ 49.17, χ2/df ¼ 2.73, CFI ¼ 0.92, IFI ¼ 0.92, RMSEA ¼ 0.07, and SRMR ¼ 0.05.
The loadings were relatively low compared to other items measured in this study.
Specifically, for item 6 (“Managers should be able to make the right decisions
without consulting with others”), participants may misunderstand and think the core
1128 of the question relates to a leader’s competency or qualification, not the power
distance-orientation issue. There is a need for further revision and validation of this
measure in subsequent studies.
Hierarchical distance. Following Cole et al. (2009), hierarchical distance was
operationalized as the difference in hierarchy level between followers and their direct
supervisors. In the survey, participants were asked to report both their own formal
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hierarchical levels and those of their direct supervisors. We used seven typical rank
categories commonly adopted in Korean business organizations (see Sample
demographics section for details). Among the 294 dyads of participants and their
direct supervisors, the results were as follows: 13.3 percent were at the same
hierarchical levels as their direct supervisors, 53.7 percent were one level lower, and
33.0 percent two or more levels lower. The variable in use was dichotomized as 0 in
cases at the same level or only one level difference, and as 1 when the difference was
two or more. In this way, typically low hierarchical distance (i.e. one level difference)
can be differentiated from high distance (i.e. two or more). After the dichotomization,
67.0 percent of the dyads were categorized as 0, and 33.0 percent as 1.
Psychological empowerment. Spreitzer’s (1995) 12-item scale was used to measure
individual perceptions of psychological empowerment. This scale contains three items
for each of four subscales: meaning, competence, self-determination, and impact.
Example items include: “I have mastered the skills necessary for my job” (competence);
and “I have significant influence over what happens in my department” (impact). The
internal consistency was 0.93 (0.93, 0.91, 0.92, and 0.93 for each subscale). The second-
order CFA showed an acceptable fit ( χ2[50] ¼ 179.44, χ2/df ¼ 3.59, CFI ¼ 0.96,
IFI ¼ 0.96, RMSEA ¼ 0.09, SRMR ¼ 0.06). All items’ factor loadings were above 0.78,
and four subdimensions were well loaded to the main variable (0.77, 0.82, 0.76, and
0.70). The second-order structure showed a significantly better fit (Δχ2[4] ¼ 1,272.86,
p o 0.001) than the one-factor model ( χ2[54] ¼ 1,452.30, χ2/df ¼ 26.89, CFI ¼ 0.58,
IFI ¼ 0.58, RMSEA ¼ 0.30, SRMR ¼ 0.13), and the four subdimensions were
significantly correlated (i.e. 0.47 o r o 0.72, p o 0.001).

Table I presents the descriptive statistics, correlations, and the internal consistency
reliability of the variables. Among the study variables, only leader humility and
psychological empowerment were significantly correlated (r ¼ 0.37, p o 0.01). For two
moderators, no significant relationship with either independent or dependent variables
was evident. This is in accordance with assertions in both classic (e.g. Blum and Naylor,
1968) and recent research on moderation (e.g. Hayes, 2013) that a moderator may not
necessarily be correlated with either of the two variables whose relationship is
influenced by the moderation effect.
For measurement model assessment, a set of second-order CFAs was conducted to
evaluate the fit of the data structure to our hypothesized model. As shown in Table II,
the full three-factor second-order model (Model 1) indicated an adequate fit. We also
Variables Mean SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
humility and
1. Gendera 0.15 0.35 –
2. Ageb 37.44 5.61 −0.28** –
3. Education c
3.08 0.78 0.10 −0.29** – empowerment
4. Tenureb 7.36 6.56 0.02 0.52** −0.32** –
5. Time spent
with current 1129
leaderb 2.46 3.36 −0.02 0.20** −0.08 0.28** –
6. Leader
humility 4.91 1.15 0.01 0.05 −0.00 0.02 0.03 (0.96)
7. Power distance
orientation 3.04 0.77 −0.13* 0.14* −0.09 0.06 −0.00 −0.02 (0.70)
8. Hierarchical
distance 0.33 0.47 0.18** −0.53** 0.18** −0.34** −0.13* −0.01 −0.04 –
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9. Psychological
empowerment 5.31 0.83 −0.02 0.29** 0.03 0.21** 0.10 0.37** −0.04 −0.09 (0.93)
Notes: n ¼ 294. Coefficient α’s are in parentheses. a0 ¼ male, 1 ¼ female; bin years; c1 ¼ high school Table I.
graduate, 2 ¼ associate degree, 3 ¼ bachelor’s degree, 4 ¼ master’s degree, and 5 ¼ doctoral degree. Descriptive statistics
*p o0.05; ** p o0.01 (two-tailed tests) and correlations

Structure χ2 df w2 =df CFI IFI TLI RMSEA SRMR Δχ2[df]a

Model 1: three factors 739.90 367 2.02 0.94 0.94 0.94 0.06 0.07
Model 2: two factors (LH and
PE combined) 1,061.82 369 2.88 0.89 0.89 0.88 0.08 0.15 321.92[2]
Model 3: two factors (LH and
PDO combined) 1,201.74 372 3.23 0.87 0.87 0.86 0.09 0.09 461.84[5]
Model 4: two factors (PE and
PDO combined) 2,328.95 373 6.24 0.70 0.70 0.67 0.13 0.10 1,589.05[6]
Model 5: single factor
(all combined) 4,058.39 377 10.77 0.43 0.44 0.39 0.18 0.19 3,318.49[10]
Notes: n ¼ 294. LH, leader humility; PDO, power distance orientation; PE, psychological Table II.
empowerment. All χ2 and Δχ2 values are p o 0.001. aΔχ2 tests relative to Model 1 Measurement model

tested all nested models including three two-factor models (Models 2, 3, and 4)
combining two of three factors (see Table II for details) as well as a single-factor model
(Model 5). The model fit comparison using χ2 difference tests confirmed a significantly
better fit of the original three-factor second-order structure.
Some have argued that moderation, which is the primary focus of the current study,
“cannot be artificially created through common method variance” (Siemsen et al., 2009,
p. 472); however, we tested for method bias, as the study was of a cross-sectional and
self-reporting survey design (Podsakoff et al., 2012). Harman’s single factor test indicated
that the fixed single factor explained approximately 30 percent of the covariance of the
variables. In addition, subsequent second-order CFAs with and without a common latent
factor did not show a serious possibility of common method variance. We included
a common latent factor linked to all observed variables in the model and constrained the
parameters to be equal to avoid underidentification. The significance levels of all loadings
in the model with a common latent factor were not distinct from those in the original
model, which implies a low possibility of data contamination.
JMP The participants in this study were from distinct departments of different
31,7 subsidiary companies as the awardees of training opportunities awarded to a member
of each department by the human resource development center. Therefore, each dyad
of a participant and his or her direct supervisor was unique. Because the data structure
was not nested, hierarchical moderated regression analyses were conducted rather than
hierarchical linear modeling to test the main effect and those of the two moderators.
1130 As the regression analyses contained several two- and three-way interaction terms,
multicollinearity was a potential concern. Accordingly, leader humility and PDO were
mean centered (Cohen et al., 2013). The VIFs were o 1.78 for all five models.
Table III shows the results of the main analyses. For hypothesis testing, we entered
the main predictor in Model 2 (R2 ¼ 0.23, F(6, 287) ¼ 14.54, p o 0.001), two moderators
in Model 3 (R2 ¼ 0.24, F(8, 285) ¼ 11.41, p o 0.001), two-way interaction terms in
Model 4 (R2 ¼ 0.27, F(11, 282) ¼ 9.31, p o 0.001), and finally, a three-way interaction
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term in Model 5 (R2 ¼ 0.28, F(12, 281) ¼ 9.23, p o 0.001). Supporting H1, the level of
leader humility of direct supervisors showed a strong positive relationship with the
level of psychological empowerment of participants ( β ¼ 0.35, t ¼ 6.79, p o 0.001).
Two moderators, PDO ( β ¼ −0.06, t ¼ −1.22, ns) and hierarchical distance between
participants and direct supervisors ( β ¼ 0.09, t ¼ 1.50, ns) had no significant effects on
psychological empowerment (ΔR2 ¼ 0.01, ΔF(2, 285) ¼ 1.79, ns).

Psychological empowerment
Variablesa Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 Model 5

Step 1: controls
Gender 0.04 0.03 0.02 0.03 0.04
Age 0.28*** 0.26*** 0.31*** 0.34*** 0.33***
Education 0.14* 0.14* 0.13* 0.13* 0.12*
Tenure 0.10 0.11 0.12 0.12 0.11
Time spent with current leader 0.02 0.02 0.02 0.01 0.01
Step 2: main effect
Leader humility (LH) 0.35*** 0.35*** 0.43*** 0.40***
Step 3: moderators
Power distance orientation (PDO) −0.06 −0.07 −0.06
Hierarchical distance (HD) 0.09 0.09 0.08
Step 4: two-way interactions
LH × PDO 0.15** 0.04
LH × HD −0.09 −0.06
PDO × HD −0.01 −0.03
Step 5: three-way interaction
LH × PDO × HD 0.17*
R2 0.11 0.23 0.24 0.27 0.28
Adjusted R2 0.09 0.22 0.22 0.24 0.25
F 7.10*** 14.54*** 11.41*** 9.31*** 9.23***
ΔR2 – 0.12 0.01 0.03 0.01
Table III. ΔF – 46.14*** 1.79 3.05* 6.45*
Hierarchical Notes: n ¼ 294. Coefficients are standardized. Values in italics are relevant to hypotheses.
moderated a
Interactions are the products of mean centered values. VIFs are below 1.78. *po 0.05; **p o 0.01;
regression analyses ***p o0.001 (two-tailed tests)
H2 and H3 proposed the effects of two moderators on the relationship between leader Leader
humility and follower psychological empowerment. The overall model was improved humility and
by adding two-way interaction terms, indicating that the moderation effect explained
additional variance in psychological empowerment (see Model 4 in Table III;
ΔR2 ¼ 0.03, ΔF(3, 282) ¼ 3.05, p o 0.05). Supporting H2, PDO positively moderated the empowerment
relationship between the level of humility of direct supervisors and the psychological
empowerment level of participants ( β ¼ 0.15, t ¼ 2.83, p o 0.01). For participants with 1131
high (+1 SD) rather than low (−1 SD) PDO, the impact of leader humility on
psychological empowerment was significantly greater (see Figure 1). However, H3 was
not supported (β ¼ −0.09, t ¼ −1.28, ns), indicating no moderating effect of hierarchical
distance on the relationship between leader humility and psychological empowerment.
Lastly, H4 was supported. As hypothesized, for participants with high-PDO and
high hierarchical distance, the impact of the direct supervisors’ humility on
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participants’ psychological empowerment was strongest ( β ¼ 0.17, t ¼ 2.54, p o 0.05;

see Figure 2). A three-way interaction term explained the significant additional
variance in psychological empowerment (ΔR2 ¼ 0.01, ΔF(1, 281) ¼ 6.45, p o 0.05).
The moderation effects were retested with a bootstrapping test, a non-parametric
resampling technique (Hayes, 2013). For H2, in 5,000 bootstrapped samples, the two-
way interaction was significant (b ¼ 0.13, t ¼ 2.75, p o 0.01, 95 percent bias-corrected
CI ¼ 0.04, 0.22). The model was significant (R2 ¼ 0.26, F(8, 285) ¼ 12.28, p o 0.001), and
the increase in R2 due to the two-way interaction was also significant (ΔR2 ¼ 0.02,
ΔF(1, 285) ¼ 7.54, p o 0.01). For H4, the three-way interaction was also reconfirmed
(b ¼ 0.23, t ¼ 2.54, p o 0.05, 95 percent bias-corrected CI ¼ 0.05, 0.42). The overall model
was significant (R2 ¼ 0.28, F(12, 281) ¼ 9.23, p o 0.001), and the increase in R2 due to the
three-way interaction was also significant (ΔR2 ¼ 0.02, ΔF(1, 281) ¼ 6.45, p o 0.05).
For H3, however, the two-way interaction term with hierarchical distance was not
significant (b ¼ −0.09, t ¼ −1.14, ns, 95 percent bias-corrected CI ¼ −0.24, 0.06), and the
increase in R2 was also not significant (ΔR2 ¼ 0.003, ΔF(1, 285) ¼ 1.29, ns). In sum, the
results of the bootstrapping tests were consistent with the outcomes of the hierarchical
moderated regressions.

Psychological empowerment


High PDO
Low High Figure 1.
Leader humility
Two-way interaction
Note: PDO, power distance orientation
JMP 6.0

Psychological empowerment
High PDO and high HD

High PDO and low HD

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Low PDO and high HD

Low PDO and low HD
Low High
Figure 2. Leader humility
interaction Notes: PDO, power distance orientation; HD, hierarchical

The results provide empirical support for H1, which predicted the relationship between
leader humility and psychological empowerment. With respect to H2 and H3, the two-
way interaction tests confirmed the moderating role of PDO between leader humility and
psychological empowerment, as hypothesized. Specifically, followers’ PDO significantly
moderated the humility-empowerment relationship such that leader humility had a
stronger and more positive effect on psychological empowerment when followers were
high, rather than low, in PDO. The psychological empowerment level of followers with
high (+1 SD) PDO was lower than that of followers with low (−1 SD) PDO under
conditions of low leader humility. However, followers with high-PDO showed greater
improvement in psychological empowerment with increased levels of leader humility.
While the interaction term was significant in the moderated regression model, the slopes
of both the high and low groups were highly and positively significant, indicating a
significant but relatively weak moderation effect.
Furthermore, the moderating role of PDO became more salient when hierarchical
distance was integrated as a second moderator. As hypothesized (H4), the impact of
leader humility on psychological empowerment was strongest when both followers’
PDO and hierarchical distance were high. When their leaders showed low levels of
humility, their psychological empowerment levels were much lower than those of the
three other groups. As leader humility increased, their psychological empowerment
increased most rapidly.
We expected that the three-way interaction effect might be weakest when both PDO
and hierarchical distance were low, although we did not establish an additional
hypothesis. However, a non-significant slope was found only in the group with low-
PDO and high hierarchical distance. For this group of followers, the highest level of
psychological empowerment was observed when leader humility was low, but little
change occurred even with high leader humility, which eventually was associated with
the lowest psychological empowerment level among the four groups. We presume that,
when hierarchical distance is high, but PDO is fairly low, leader humility may be
unappreciated by followers or even misinterpreted as incompetence. Our findings have Leader
various implications explaining how individual PDO and hierarchical distance jointly humility and
contribute to the effectiveness of leader humility.
Theoretical and practical implications empowerment
Responding to the call for empirical evidence on humble leadership effects, this study
sought to contribute the body of knowledge on humility, power distance, leader 1133
distance, and empowerment. This study is a first attempt to integrating four
developed streams of research that have not been connected previously. Our findings
offer a solid basis for conceptualizing psychological empowerment as an underlying
mechanism through which humble leadership affects more distal outcomes.
Furthermore, our results suggest that the humility-empowerment relationship is
much stronger when PDO and hierarchical distance are high than when either or both
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are low, thereby implying that the model of leader humility needs to be expanded to
incorporate potential contingency factors affecting leader-follower relationships. This
is a fascinating finding because extant studies investigating PDO as a moderator in
the leadership process tend to suggest that those lower, rather than higher, in PDO,
are more likely to strengthen the positive relationship between leadership and
follower outcomes (e.g. Kirkman et al., 2009). In sum, our findings open the door for
highlighting the follower occupied a lower hierarchical position in the context of
humble leadership, wherein leaders are engaged in valuing followers’ unique
contribution for social learning.
The present study also provides important guidance for managerial practice.
In today’s fast-paced dynamic environments, organizational designs integrating
empowerment initiatives have proven to be strategically advantageous (Maynard et al.,
2012). For practitioners, a better understanding of how humble leadership influences
followers’ psychological empowerment might be helpful for designing management
approaches that effectively elicit desirable behaviors. Our study provided a conceptual
foundation for interventions that are designed to promote humility in organizations.
Such interventions may be most effective if they emphasize the role of followers as
“social mirrors,” through which humble leaders can more accurately see themselves
(Owens et al., 2013, p. 1519). In line with our findings, management attention should be
directed toward creating conditions within which leaders effectively demonstrate
humble behaviors, as humility is a valuable virtue that should be cultivated by leaders
seeking to foster a sense of feeling that they can make a difference in work outcomes.
Second, leaders must consider their followers’ cultural value orientation in conjunction
with their hierarchical rank, adjusting their humble behavior. Although leadership as a
social process is determined by both leaders and followers, leadership practices often
take the leader-centered approach. Our findings imply that subordinate-based
contingency factors have significant impacts on the effectiveness of humility.
High-PDO employees are likely to avoid disagreements with supervisors and withhold
potentially critical ideas unless encouraged by humble leaders. Thus, humble
leadership must be a proper approach especially for employees with high-PDO and
high hierarchical distance. Finally, our theoretical endeavors and results imply that the
essence of humble leadership lies in followers’ process of development (Owens et al.,
2012). Indeed, three dimensions of humble behaviors – acknowledging personal limits,
spotlighting follower strengths, and modeling teachability – can concurrently
contribute to make followers feel empowered and encourage self-actualization
rather than driving them to achieve high performance. We suggest that being humble
JMP does not mean a relative decrease in power of leaders. Humility promotes personal
31,7 growth by utilizing followers as key sources of insights and simultaneously helping
them reach their potential.
Limitations and future research
Several limitations of our work should be noted. The data used in this study were
collected in Korea; demographically, the sample is confined to a specific group of highly
1134 educated male managers in their 30s and 40s. Both limitations may restrict the
generalizability of the findings. Future research should include heterogeneous cultural
contexts and demographic diversity. With respect to the survey design, we adopted
a cross-sectional approach, which may cause potential issues related to reverse
causation. In future research, data sets should contain multiple time points to ensure
definitive causality among variables.
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The findings of our study may be extended in different directions. Future research
may include a cross-cultural examination of humility and power distance issues.
As Owens and Hekman (2012) observed, adherence to power and hierarchy may also be
a contextual contingency that influences the emergence and subsequent impact of
humble leadership. Oc et al. (2015) further noted that the dominance of power distance
in Asian cultures may be related to culturally based differences in leader humility.
We adopted the cultural value of power distance at the individual level, but future
research should examine how distinct cultural contexts regulate humility and its
impact on outcomes and how power distance as a contextual contingency interacts
with individual PDO in regulating the influence of humility.
Finally, we focussed on the interactional effects of leader humility and distance-related
variables on psychological empowerment. Future research, however, may examine the
impact of leader humility on more distal outcomes through psychological states of
followers. For example, we expect that leader humility may influence group effectiveness
by impacting follower psychological empowerment, which may have a cascading effect
in organizations. We additionally suggest that PDO and hierarchical distance will
moderate the mediation effect of psychological empowerment. Future studies using the
moderated mediation model will provide more detailed knowledge on the role of
psychological empowerment between humility and outcomes, which is contingent upon
individual and dyadic characteristics related to power and hierarchy.
Despite its limitations, this study adds to the emergent dialogue on leader humility
by identifying distance-related factors as important contingencies that strengthen the
effects of humility on empowerment. Hopefully, our study helps to provide greater
insights into the humble leadership phenomenon.

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About the authors

Chang-Wook Jeung is a Researcher at Yonsei Business Research Institute, Seoul, Korea and a
Global PhD Fellow of the National Research Foundation of Korea. Chang-Wook Jeung is the
corresponding author and can be contacted at:
Hea Jun Yoon is an Associate Research Fellow at Korea Research Institute for Vocational
Education and Training (KRIVET), Sejong, Korea.

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