hu·mil·i·ty – noun
- a modest or low view of one’s own importance
Leadership Through Integrity requires a true understanding of humility.
I once worked for a company who introduced core values across the Enterprise. Employees were even randomly asked to recite the list on demand. Humility was one of those values and stood out because nobody could quite explain what it was. The problem: everyone had a different definition or none at all. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the fact that people understand things differently and have different points of view however, when it comes to a core business value it’s critical that everyone share the same understanding.
When it came time for performance evaluations, leadership required each manager and team lead to rate individual performance tied to the company’s values. This was highly problematic. Employees were asked to embody the value of humility (along with the others). This value quickly became a paperwork exercise and drifted far from the intended goal of effecting change.
There’s a lot of confusion between humble and humility. They are different words with different uses however, share a similar meaning.
A quick English lesson from a web search: Humble is an adjective defined as: 1) having or showing a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance. 2) of low social, administrative, or political rank. Example, ‘a humble servant’. Humble is also a verb defined as: 1) lower in dignity or importance. Example. ‘a humble cottage’. In contrast, humility is a noun defined as: 1) a modest or low view of one’s own importance. Example, ‘he/she showed great humility”.
Humility is the quality of being humble. Translating, putting the needs of others before your own, and thinking of others before yourself, not drawing attention to yourself. Wait a minute…WHAT? How can this be a good thing?
Examining being humble in business and life: why would anyone want to have a low estimate of one’s own importance? How does having that view translate into increased productivity, career advancement, leadership, business objectives, etc? Seems counterintuitive that anyone would not want to shine and boast about being the best. Isn’t that how the corporate ladder is climbed?
Let’s look at this from a different angle…
The single best explanation of humility, one that I live by and promote in my coaching and training sessions is a quote by CS Lewis. He said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
The discovery of that quote many years ago was an ah-ha moment for me! The following is a true personal story to illustrate this:
During the early part of the relationship with my wife, there was one specific action that my wife did that always upset me and always resulted in an argument. My wife likes a clean house. In our early days, I wasn’t sold on that idea. Something needed to change. I set out a plan to be the best husband I could be. I would take action by showing her that I too could keep a clean house. There were occasions where my wife would go out of town and I thought to myself, perfect opportunity to show her that I appreciate cleanliness.
We had kids, a couple of dogs and white tile floor. It’s not like I didn’t see the dirt, I just had other priorities and wasn’t paying attention. Her trips were my opportunity to set things right, at least that was the plan. I was ready to prove my worth, I could do this, I set out to become her hero! I had a plan, ready, GO! … I swept mopped and vacuumed the floors right before she came home, every time. I was so proud of myself, the floors couldn’t have been cleaner. I even got down on my hands and knees and scrubbed. I was so proud of my actions and so eager to tell her what I did. That’s where my plan crashed to the ground in a ball of flames.
When my wife came home she would give me a kiss, check in with the kids, pet the dogs (not necessarily in that order, I was often last, LOL). Oh, marital bliss, family bliss, I was happy she was home. And then, every single time, she would put down her things, go to the closet, grab a broom and sweep the entire first floor of our house. I was outraged. All my good feelings of everything that I did meant nothing? This always resulted in an argument and bad feelings all around. Did she not appreciate me? Did I not do it right? Did I not live up to her standards? How can I make her happy if I do what’s expected and she still cleaned the floors?? Is she joking???
This is where humility comes in. I came to realize that her sweeping the floors had nothing to do with me. She would come home and basically clean the nest. This was her ritual, her way, something that she needed to do to feel that she was indeed home and then relax. She swept to signify to herself that she was home. It wasn’t to clean and in fact, she hardly ever picked up any dirt or pet hair, I got pretty good at it. I realized her actions weren’t about cleaning or hurting my feelings.
I had to change my thinking about this. The practice and understanding of humility told me this had nothing to do with me. Let me remind you of the first thing I said in this story, I used the phrase ‘my wife did’…. What did I mean by that? Did she do something to me? Before I understood humility I said, yes. I felt that she disrespected me, she didn’t care about my feelings and as a result, I created problems, big ones! Humility showed me that she wasn’t doing something TO me she was doing something FOR her. Lightning bolt to the head, not literally of course, what an epiphany! This changed everything.
I followed CS Lewis…I thought of myself less without thinking less of myself. This wasn’t about me, not even close, I made it about me. I was the one causing the problems and arguments because my feelings were hurt. Once I learned not to think less of myself our lives changed forever. To this day, she still cleans after I clean sometimes and that’s perfectly okay with me.
On to business: the following is true with details changed slightly to protect the innocent (and not so innocent).
I believe the intention of the company that I worked for was to promote the CS Lewis principle but stumbled in the process. During my time at that same company, I can clearly remember an event (I was in the room) where a senior lever manager publicly chastised an employee for not following their direction regarding a problem (I’m intentionally being vague here). The employee had a more efficient, less time-consuming, more cost-effective way of addressing the issue. The end result was not what the senior person expected, the results were spectacular!
The specific employee in question was belittled and the manager took credit for the success of the solved problem, it was difficult to watch. The collateral damage of the actions of the senior leader resulted in a loss of confidence and respect from the remaining team members. Executive leadership in the company offered praise to the senior level individual, no mention of the employee that took charge and created real change. Unfortunately, the organization at the time was not interested in truly understanding or learning the actual concept of humility.
Ask yourself the following: Has this ever happened to you? Has this ever happened in your company? How would you know? Have you ever been the person to do this to someone else? Have you ever taken credit for the work of others? Do you employ people who behave that way?
The personal story I shared was my game changer. It helped me understand myself better, it helped me build stronger relationships, it helped me to become a better leader both professionally and personally. I continuously reflect upon my personal and business experiences and examine how they impact my life. Real world feedback from people in my life, that I highly respect, tell me that I am a great leader that shows great humility. This didn’t happen by accident.
I learned to get out of my own way and I’m able to understand that not everything’s about me. There are many right ways to do things, everyone is entitled to their own feelings and personal dignity. I tried to take away and control my wife’s actions much the same as the senior leader tried to take away and control the employee’s actions.
My story ended well. Unfortunately, due to a lack of humility, the business story I shared with you did not end well. It resulted in lasting strife and division among the ranks. That story was in the early days of the company implementing their values program. I am sure the program improved over time (at least I hope so). To be fair, this is not an indictment of that company. I have witnessed this behavior throughout my career.
Personally and professionally, humility is at the core of Leadership Through Integrity. This quality, this value, will help you create lasting relationships and loyalty. It will help reduce turnover, create an environment and culture where employees feel empowered to share new ideas, reduce employee problems such as ghosting, and encourage individual growth. Humility does not come naturally, it is learned. It takes practice, it takes reflection, it takes strong character, confidence, and the ability to honor and look beyond yourself.
Back to the question, ‘how can this be a good thing?’…the answer is pretty straightforward: Leaders that fully grasp the concept of humility show great strength and help foster a company culture rooted in integrity.
Thinking about yourself less without thinking less of yourself is an amazing way to live. I will not tell you that humility will change your life however, it has changed mine.
I welcome discussion on this topic.