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Leading with humility in tumultuous times: evidence from the United States

Sara McClellan (Department of Public Policy and Administration, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, California, USA)

International Journal of Public Leadership

ISSN: 2056-4929

Article publication date: 14 May 2020

Issue publication date: 31 July 2020




Wicked problems, cross-sectoral and transregional collaborations, emerging technologies and calls for innovation generate exciting but unpredictable transformations in governance. Emerging research suggests humility, rather than certitude, represents a promising ethos for public leaders working to solve problems in tumultuous times. This study examines the nature, value and practice of humility in public administration (PA) leadership.


This study reviews cross-disciplinary research on the nature and value of humility and emerging findings and debates on humility assessment measures. It analyzes discourse among graduate students in US PA classes and uses ethnographic analysis from workshops with local government leaders to identify institutional dynamics that may influence leaders' willingness to act with humility.


Findings suggest that although PA students and leaders may value humility, they encounter institutional constraints related to public sector legitimacy and narratives about expertise and risk. The author proposes a framework to guide future research and practice in humility and public leadership.

Research limitations/implications

Potential constraints emerged from a modest study of courses and workshops; further research is required to test the prevalence of themes across public leadership environments.

Practical implications

Public leaders, teachers and coaches may apply these practices and assessment measures to cultivate humility in PA classes and organizations.


This study is among the first to explore leadership humility with attention to how PA context may influence practice.



McClellan, S. (2020), "Leading with humility in tumultuous times: evidence from the United States", International Journal of Public Leadership, Vol. 16 No. 3, pp. 265-277.



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