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Can leader “humility” spark employee “proactivity”? The mediating role of psychological empowerment

Yanhong Chen (Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin, China) (Mudanjiang Normal University, Mudanjiang, China)
Baowei Liu (Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin, China)
Li Zhang (Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin, China)
Shanshan Qian (Nankai University, Tianjin, China)

Leadership & Organization Development Journal

ISSN: 0143-7739

Article publication date: 19 April 2018

Issue publication date: 9 May 2018




The purpose of this paper is to investigate the effect of humble leadership on employee proactive behavior. The authors propose that such effect is mediated by psychological empowerment, and identification with leader moderates the intervening role of psychological empowerment in the humble leadership-employee proactive behavior relationship.


Data were collected from 286 subordinate-supervisor dyads from 4 industries in Northern China. Hierarchical linear modeling analyses were applied to test the research model.


Humble leadership has a significantly positive effect on employee proactive behavior, and this effect is mediated by psychological empowerment. Furthermore, the identification with leader moderates the mediated relationships between humble leadership and employee proactive behavior via psychological empowerment.

Research limitations/implications

One limitation is that the data were collected cross-sectionally. Further research could conduct longitudinal research to retest the hypotheses. The present research has a number of implications. First, the authors extend humble leadership research. Second, the authors also contribute to humble leadership literature by addressing the lack of attention paid to the explanatory mechanism linking humble leader behavior to follower outcomes. Third, the authors provide a new insight into the boundary condition of humble leadership.

Practical implications

Managers should demonstrate more humble behaviors in their leading process to influence employees’ psychological empowerment and proactive behavior. In addition, managers should provide employees with sincere care in relation to work and life issues to produce employees’ identification with leader.

Social implications

Humility is a modifiable trait that individuals can increase dramatically by practice. Humble behavior is more accessible and easier to cultivate, contrary to the stable trait of humility. Besides, our results confirmed the individuals with the virtue of humility are most likely to succeed. Thus, humble behaviors should be highly advocated and encouraged in our society.


This research extends humble leadership research by constructing and verifying the theoretical model of humble leader behavior and employee proactive behavior and by demonstrating the value of humble leader behavior in a non-Western context, and identifies the different roles of psychological empowerment and identification with leader on employee proactive behavior.



This project was funded and supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71472054, 71772052).


Chen, Y., Liu, B., Zhang, L. and Qian, S. (2018), "Can leader “humility” spark employee “proactivity”? The mediating role of psychological empowerment", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 39 No. 3, pp. 326-339.



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