Why Humility Isn’t Who You Think
Chris Houstonon 02 October, 2015 at 03:10
Over the past months, we have laid out a working hypothesis for how a business might make change toward becoming a Purposeful Enterprise. We began with the necessary alignment of the company brand with its culture. Then we examined the critical role played by the choices in resource allocation and priority that could together be called strategy. Then we explored how the business must align with the aspirations of its people to “make a difference” rather than aligning the people to the business, and therefore tap into the deep desire of employees to participate in meaningful work.
Next we examined the role of exemplars—the real leaders—who already embody both the strategy and the culture of the organization, and we saw how such embodiment is not technique or methodology that can be practiced like a new discipline but requires a genuine change of heart and mind—what we have called metanoia.
Yet, as we dig further into this essential and intrinsically personal change of heart, we find the core of what it takes to truly change a business. Like twins joined by a shared DNA, we discover courage (the more outgoing twin), and humility (the more introspective partner). These two attributes form the core of any meaningful change towards the Purposeful Enterprise.
When the 15 minutes of fame I am sure he coveted finally arrived, it probably did not turn out quite the way this CEO envisioned. With an almost ethereal vigor, when his moment in the spotlight arrived, this hapless business executive tried in vain to defend the actions of his company to raise the price of a 62-year-old “orphan drug” from the obscurity of affordability into the limelight of commercial exploitation. As one commentator put it, “the anvil of social media landed squarely on his head,” and it was not pretty.
At first, his explanation was simply, “it’s a business decision,” which of course missed the point entirely, for the public outcry had nothing to do with business judgment but rather with the realm of morality and the milk of human kindness. In a world gripped by images of the stateless washed ashore on the beaches of Europe and homeless faces pressed to its burgeoning razor wire, the “mob of social media” is in no mood for visible, crass, commercial exploitation. Still, this young, brash, now chastised yet unrepentant CEO, seeking the single aim of wealth, seems perplexed by all the pushback his decision has aroused and that has now curtailed his grandest intentions.
In sharp contrast, within the same week, a single man—also a CEO of sorts, but one who aspires to live in a small apartment and insists on driving in a small, simple car—rose before a joint meeting in Washington, at the hearth of free-enterprise, to the thunderous applause of his heretofore ferociously divided audience: the U.S. Congress. This man, dressed all in white and now well into his seventies, the leader of a global organization just a couple of years ago declared “irrelevant and out of touch,” proclaimed the essential requirement of the golden rule.
This CEO, the pontiff, oversees a vast organization with “branch plants” in virtually every town in the western world, not to mention exploding growth in South America, Asia and Africa, seems well aware that the habits of his life, the words of his mouth and the meditations of his heart are on display for the world and therefore they may foment change for the good.
For many years, shaped by the cultural celebration of success, we have tended to see humility as some kind of disability. Such an attribute is hardly going to win a round of funding on Dragons Den or the Shark Tank, let alone to exemplify the next conqueror of Everest, Broadway star, brilliant satirist, or stellar politician.
Lord Thompson of Fleet, one of the last of the great press barons, once opined, “Humility, I’ve no use for it! Where would I be if I’d been humble?!” Humility, in our culture, has been associated with a lack of self-confidence that so many self-help programs incessantly promise to cultivate. And yet, for some reason brash self-confidence was no help to that first CEO in quelling the ire of thousands of critics while simultaneously rows and rows of people lined the streets just to glimpse the second CEO pass by in the small car.
Humility is unpopular culturally for three main reasons:
- it is thought to interfere with our legitimate ambitions
- it is assumed to weaken our defense of a righteous cause, and
- it is believed to show lack of self-confidence.
It seems hardly likely that the publisher who cheerfully brought us the late President Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage would have been so enthusiastic with a tome entitled Profiles in Humility. If we are to respond to these cultural cues, then it would seem that Nelson Mandela would have been better off to emerge from Robben Island to mount a sensational tour de force rather than with the gritty realism of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Yet something prompted both Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain to step aside and let the bolder Churchill seize the task to which he was much better suited than either of them: to gather and lead Britain through the nightmare of war.
Humility is the quality of rightly seeing one’s place in the context of and in right relationship to others. [TWEET THAT!] Humility does not demand cowed timidity but is a virtue that insists upon of self-awareness, social intelligence, confidence and service to others.
If we shall be able to transform this remarkable institution called business and harness its unparalleled capacity to do good, we will succeed because we place it as a servant of good, not as an amoral agent of its own absorption. It is no longer adequate for business to own a space of pure commercial exploitation for its own (as in owners’) sake, but to put it to work in service of massive human need. To serve demands humility, and business shall only inherit the virtue of such necessary humility from humble leaders who must come to inhabit it. A business that sees itself in right relationship to its social context will only emerge inasmuch as its people see themselves in right relationship to others.
The “secret sauce” of such a transformation lies not in clever change efforts or even well chosen and well-articulated strategy but in the attitudes and exhibited characteristics of a critical mass of the people who work in and buy from that business.
This movement towards a more purposeful form of enterprise is both a current business reality and an epic struggle, a branding campaign and a moral dilemma, a clarion call for better and a mythical, even mystical, paradox. As John Wilson, a personal mentor, once said to me, “Chris, don’t try to make business nice. It can’t be nice. But it can be better.” Wise words, kindly intoned, long remembered.
The humble leader, as agent of change, may be a private or public person, CEO or financial analyst, corporate officer or co-op student. They inspire strong convictions in others, yet remain open to discussion and new perspectives. They serve, they care, they are loyal, and they are respected. They are realists, but their optimism or idealism is infectious. They quietly challenge the erosion of consumer value and they trumpet new business models. They are vibrant, fresh with new possibilities. For them, mystery does not produce fear, but rather hearkens to an undiscovered reality.
If business is to become an agent for good then it will do so only to the extent that each of us who choose this domain in which to express our gifts can see our own needs and wants within the context of others and be possessed of sufficient moral courage to act out of a conviction of humility. Together, we just might make the world a little better. It is up to us, but it will most certainly require us to first choose whom we will serve.
For other posts in the Telosity series, click here.