Tuesday 19 November 2013

‘True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less’ :: Is being humble a desirable attribute of a corporate leader?

It is apt to start by quoting CS Lewis on humility - “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” 

Typically the names of Gandhi or Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa come up when one thinks of humble leaders. Such leaders exude the highest form of humility where the word humble means to be “marked by meekness or modesty in behaviour, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful.”  

It is easier to relate to this notion of humility than to think of humble leaders in the corporate world! Not many people would think of humility as a characteristic of a leader when talking about leadership in management or in how organisation's are run! The entire basis that the corporate world works on is loyalty to oneself and employee relationships enabled by compensation received in lieu of time, effort and risk (taken by an employee). 

The notion of humility in the corporate world is bound to raise eyebrows as most organisations today are faced with constant and frequent change efforts that invariably leave employees suffering from “change fatigue” and the reality that most decisions are driven in the never ending pursuit of maximising shareholder valueMy own personal view-point was that humility in a corporate leader is likely to be considered a sign of weakness. I have first-hand experience of seeing humility being misunderstood to mean indecisiveness or weakness of character whereas being humble can be simply mean putting your organisation first rather than putting yourself first (or putting others down!).

As I struggled with this notion I did think of some leaders that I met in the corporate world who did appear to be humble and whose demeanour was more in line with the perspective on humility shared by Pareena Lawrence “It is neither a sign of personal weakness nor a term of condescension. It does not mean shy, meek, diffident, insecure, lacking confidence, self-deprecating, reserved, reticent, or timid, even though people often associate humility with such characteristics. It also does not mean having a low estimate of oneself, shying away from the centre of attention or lacking the ability to inspire others.”

I particularly like this approach to humility as in the organisational context the ability of corporate leaders to subjugate themselves to a higher purpose is potentially the best way to understand what makes one a leader in the corporate world. This is easier said than done as sometimes we need to adopt a strategy that makes a leader take a 'step-down' in their mind-set and not be guided by their position on the organisational hierarchy or structure! [The title of Oliver Goldsmith’s play “She stoops to conquer” comes to mind!]. Managing one's ego is critical here. We all are egoists to some degree and the truth is that having a strong yet healthy ego (as compared to having a large yet sensitive ego!) is critical in leadership. 

I consider a leader who has humility as one who is patient, respectful, compassionate and authentic. The anti-thesis would be one who is arrogant and willing to belittle or humiliate. Being a humble leader means the ability to change and adapt i.e. learn from past mistakes but more importantly admit that one has made a mistake and have the courage to keep devil's advocates on hand to question and critique (who keep the leader honest!). I have seen my fair share of managers that never admit they were wrong (even when shown proof!) and who are quick to apportion or shift blame to others! [Watch this video on Warren Bennis’s perspective on the difference between managers vs. leaders]. 

I have found great leaders in the corporate world who are humble yet firm! Who are assertive yet know how to stop from becoming aggressive (there is a very thin line between being assertive and being aggressive). These leaders know how to show respect, care and compassion while maintaining focus on outcomes. They respect outcomes but honour the way we deliver those outcomes. Aggression and arrogance makes leaders place themselves at the centre of a conversation i.e. "I am all that matters"; whereas humility places others at the centre i.e. "we all matter."

I came across some excellent advice from John Dame & Jeffrey Gedmin who outline six simple yet excellent principles that one can adopt to develop humility as a leader:
  1. Know what you don't know
  2. Resist falling for your own publicity
  3. Never underestimate the competition
  4. Embrace and promote a spirit of service
  5. Listen, even (no, especially) to the weird ideas
  6. Be passionately curious.

I want to close with some simple words from Mother Teresa. They represent a simplistic benchmark in becoming a humble leader (or more importantly better human beings). Don't lose focus on this quarter’s performance or how your yearly performance appraisal will go but do adopt some (or all) of the tenets below to move towards a better working environment based on humility:

- To speak as little as possible of one's self
- To mind one's own business
- Not to want to manage other people's affairs
- To avoid curiosity
- To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully
- To pass over the mistakes of others
- To accept insults and injuries
- To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked
- To be kind and gentle even under provocation
- Never to stand on one's dignity
- To choose always the hardest.

Mother Teresa, The Joy in Loving: A Guide to Daily Living


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