One thing they don’t teach in business school is humility.
That was a line I would sometimes drop in my presentations, and it never failed to get a laugh. Everyone it seemed—regardless of whether they had attended b-school or not—knew the kind of self-importance and, yes, arrogance that newly minted graduates might display. Their MBA swagger lasted until they hit their first roadblock at work, and it threw them for a loop. That setback may have been an early lesson in humility.
Today, in our world struggling in the wake of Covid-19, humility is more accepted. We have all been humbled. The world we knew in January 2020 is no more, and the world we are creating is not yet born. There is no certainty in the wake of the virus, economic uncertainty, racial injustice, climate change, and contentious politics.
Acceptance of reality
Those who accept that reality are demonstrating a sense of humility. That, however, does not mean they are rolling over. Indeed humble people are highly self-aware individuals. They know their strengths and their shortcomings. Author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.”
Yes, humility is a gift of strength. It is an acceptance of one’s humanity—frailty and fragility, but also hope and grace. We know we make mistakes, but we have the grace to forgive ourselves so that we can move forward, not simply for ourselves but those who follow our lead.
Making a difference
“To lead the people,” said Lao Tzu, “walk behind them.” Humility inspires people to follow, and when they see you behind them, in support of them, they are more inspired.
A humble leader is content to put others first for two reasons. One, she knows that the real work is done by people who follow a leader’s directives. Two, she is content within herself to recognize her strengths. She echoes the words of Martin Luther, “True humility does not know that it is humble. If it did, it would be proud from the contemplation of so fine a virtue.”
A friend of mine experienced the benefits of humility firsthand while undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous growth near the side of his nose adjacent to his eye. The removal went fine. But at the time of suturing, the dermatologist asked my friend if he minded her seeking a second opinion on the closing of the wound.
My friend thanked her and told me later that four of her colleagues came to view the room. What gratified my friend was the humility his surgeon displayed when asking for the counsel of colleagues. She did not fear that my friend or her colleagues would think less of her. She was only interested in the welfare of her patient.
Humility is a virtue, but there is nothing soft or squishy about it. Humility is forged in adversity and gives us the backbone to continue our journey.
Humility is a virtue, no doubt.
But gaining humility requires more than virtue.
Hard work. Sacrifice. Selflessness.
Humility demands a sublimation of ego, but not of will.
Willpower gives us the strength to step back,
So that others may go forward.
Humility enables us to see the light in others,
Rather than our reflection.