“The humble man makes room for progress;
the proud man believes he is already there.” -Ed Parker
In school, we start at the elementary level. We walk into the first grade with a mixture of nervousness, excitement, panic and awe, humbled by the daunting change. Over the next five years, we gain knowledge and experiences until we become confident in our understanding of the system’s inner workings. By sixth grade we know how to take tests, where to sit to be first in the lunch line, and how to get to the nurse’s office.
The first day of middle school is a shock — you are at the bottom of the learning curve again.
After spending a few years re-creating yourself and learning in the new situation, you begin to feel confident, and by the end, you are equipped with a new set of skills and knowledge. This process repeats during the transition to high school, college, your first “big person” job, etc.
We all engage in these environment-driven humility cycles. The beginning of each new phase is disorienting, but it is the disruption that allows us to grow. Without the discomfort of recognizing your limitations, the areas for improvement it represents, and work we put in to overcome it, there would be no development or learning.
Humility is powerful.
Humility is the key to becoming your most powerful self, both personally and professionally (this is backed communication research: see resources below).
On a personal level, humility helps you learn. When you are humble, you recognize your limitations and are open to others’ insights.
By expanding your paradigm to include the experience of others, you allow their insights to add wisdom to your thoughts and decisions. Along with enriching your personal quality of thought, interacting with and having empathy for diverse perspectives helps you work well with others, sense their needs, and build relationships.
The power of humility goes well beyond personal knowledge and relationship building, however; it has serious implications for organizational development.
Humility creates a strong culture of trust and experimentation within organizations. As a leader, when you recognize your limitations and turn to others in the organization for their expertise, they feel validated and their trust in you increases. Through this relationship, you gain fuller access to their skills, resources and connections, which creates innumerable opportunities for internal cooperation, experimentation and growth.
Humility is also the cornerstone of institutional innovation and agility in the marketplace. As a leader, when you recognize that you and the members of your organization don’t have all the resources conducive for success, you are more willing to seek outside input and experimentation. This attitude opens the path for collaboration and mixing of capabilities to deliver novel value, which keeps organizations innovative and relevant.
That’s a lot of power from such a small attitude shift.
The most powerful leaders are not those with the highest IQ, they are humble facilitators — they access the skills and resources of their teams through personal humility and look externally for collaboration and growth opportunities.
So, if humility is so powerful, why are we not always humble?
Although we learn the most when we are humble, we feel the most comfortable when we are self-confident.
With each new transition and the expectation of wisdom that comes with age, going to the bottom of a learning curve can be increasingly uncomfortable. We become entrenched in our positions and are rarely forced to change like we were during childhood and adolescence when constant disruption and learning was expected. We also become more aware of ourselves — we want validation and proof that we are valuable. It feels like a personal affront when things we have worked hard to achieve are disregarded as irrelevant in a new environment.
These conditions create an enticing breeding ground for developmental rigidity and intellectual hubris. We can become fixated on preserving sense of identity and control or hiding behind past experience and knowledge instead of humbly submitting to new learning opportunities.
When we become intractable in our mindsets and are unwilling to learn, however, our long-term success trajectory is stunted.
How can we avoid falling into this trap?
In order to be our most powerful selves, we need to become disciplined in proactively seeking humbling, disruptive experiences, however uncomfortable they may be.
When you feel confident in an area or are afraid to try something you’ve never done, it is time to become vulnerable and humbly immerse yourself in a new experience. As our Chief Catalyst at the Business Innovation Factory Saul Kaplan often says, “If you are [and I add: think you are] the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find a new room.”
We call this act of finding a “new room” the random collision of unusual suspects or RCUS (pronounced “ruckus”). By exposing yourself to new ideas and perspectives, you are able to recognize your personal and organizational limitations (i.e.-humility). You are then able to experiment with re-organizing capabilities to create new solutions and value by observing and enrolling the ideas and resources of others. Some of the most innovative solutions come out of these unusual partnerships.
Although we are older, we don’t have to become rigid in our perspectives and environments. As children, we learn how to be disrupted and grow from it; it is now time to disrupt ourselves. As grown ups in a much bigger sandbox, there is still so much opportunity to learn and experiment, all it takes is a little humility. Let’s get humble and start playing.
Some research on humility as a source of power:
Adams, S. (2011). Business Source Premier. In Praise of Humility At Work.
Brown, M. (2010, November 16). Real leadership: The power of humility. Incentive Magazine, Retrieved from http://www.incentivemag.com/article.aspx?id=6802Caldwell, C., Hayes, L., & Long, D. (2010).
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great, Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Hayes, M., & Comer, M. (2011). Lead With Humility: Build trust and inspire others! Leadership Excellence, 13.
Thompson, M., & Tracy, B. (2010). Building a Great Organization. Executive Forum. 45–50.
University at Buffalo. (2008, December 08). Humility key to effective leadership. UB School of Management News Center. Retrieved from http://www.buffalo.edu/news/13065.
Vera, D., & Rodriguez-Lopez, A. (2004). Strategic Virtues: Humility as a Source of Competitive Advantage. Organizational Dynamics, 33(4), 393–408.
Whetstone, J. T. (2002). Personalism and Moral Leadership: The Servant Leader With a Transforming Vision. Business Ethics: A European Review, 11(4), 385–392.
N E X T → Setting an Intention for Citizenship