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Humility in Business

I personally find this topic very difficult. I am not a humble person by nature. I love the chase and the struggle of business and I revel in the rewards. This weekend, Julie & I had the opportunity to sit in on a talk given by Chris & Terry Brady, co-authors of upcoming book, Launching a Leadership Revolution and an enormously wealthy couple who own some very large companies. The topic they decided to cover: humility in business.

Terry led the discussion with a bold statement: “The most common cause of failure once people achieve significant success in business is an out of balance ego.” We explored the idea that no one achieves success alone. The support of a number of people, a business team, a spouse perhaps, a mentor or some friends, are often indispensable. No one is truly self-made.

She then moved to the application of humility in leadership. “The beginning of influence comes when the other person feels listened to and can influence you.” True leadership comes from setting your own ego and agenda aside and really listen to what they are saying. When people feel you understand their needs, have their best interest at heart and are open to what they have to share, then you can begin to exert influence or leadership. Her conclusion – true effective leadership must come from humility and humility is rooted in the act of listening.

Most people I talk to seem to consider humility as the opposite of boastfulness or conceit. To me, humility contains greater depth.

According to Wikipedia, a humble person is “someone who does not think that he or she is better or more important than others.” Upon contemplation, as I review my notes and collect my thoughts, I believe that Terry was referring to a lack humility as both an overdeveloped ego as well as an underdeveloped ego. Insecurity is just as harmful as overconfidence. Both lead to disharmony between people and both seem to affect decision making.

When I researched humility online, the bulk of content was religious in nature. What I found fascinating was the arguments that humility is not weakness, nor does it hinder one’s obligation to take responsibility. Genuine humility is always associated with healthy self-esteem. Often repeated throughout articles: humility is rooted in balance. For further reading on the topic, I particularly enjoyed Dr. Alan Morinis article on “How much Space do You take?“.

So, I’m out here in Kauai and have been blessed with a full day to carefully think about this while on the beach and surfing. During our discussion in the water, Peter pointed out that at the heart of humility is the belief that everyone has something they can teach you. Quinn then defined humility as gratitude. After a lot of though, I have come to my own conclusion. A humble person respectfully considers others each and every time they consider themselves. It seems everyone approaches it slightly differently. So let me ask you, how do you define humility?

Humility in Action: Reacting vs. Responding

Define it as you like, I consistently notice that most of the truly great leaders I have had the honor to personally meet either started or have develop this quality in abundance. I believe we all struggle with this to some degree. So how do you know when you are out of balance? What are some of the symptoms to watch out for?

Terry gave us the following list:

  1. You feel secretly (or not so secretly) hurt or resentful when someone else gets well deserved recognition or rewards.
  2. You tend to resist new information and stop active listening & learning.
  3. You talk about yourself too much.
  4. When you talk about others, you tend to tear them down.
  5. You resist constructive feedback
  6. You treat society & gods laws lightly

If you said yes to any of the items in the list above (I did), what can you do about it? In my effort to grow and improve, I have read a number of books and discussed the topic in depth with the people who love and respect me. From those dialogs, I have worked out some ideas on what I could do to incorporate humility into my life. I though I might share it in case someone else can benefit from my own journey.

Respond to situations rather than Reacting to them. Simple to say, but its been tough to do. The difference: A reaction is a knee jerk (emotional) behavior – a response is a careful intellectual one. Our reactions are 100% about us. They are our feelings, our experience, our problems and our talents and intuitions. None of these should be ignored. Before acting though, pause for a second and consider what you will say, the consequences of your actions & the people you will influence. If it harms no one (including yourself) then respond.

Does the pause make me more humble? It is a start. I consider the act of a humble person carefully pondering someone’s words or behavior, measuring consequences and other people’s needs before acting, Being the eternal optimist, I believe that most people who act out of self centered behavior are not bad, nor evil, they are simply wired that way. Others, like Peter & Julie are wired to always consider others. They could not avoid it even if they tried. I struggle with it daily. Can it be learned? To a degree. I will never have the innate humility of my business partner or my wife, but as I told Peter yesterday, I will carve a goat trail through the wasteland of humility in my personality. Some day, it might eventually be a two lane road.

In the immortal words of the great Benjamin Franklin:

“In reality there is perhaps no one of our natural Passions so hard to subdue as Pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself…For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my Humility.”