The question isn’t “Should I be humble?” The question is “How do I do it?”
Everyone from assorted saints to assorted leadership gurus seems to agree that humility is a good thing. But there’s not much advice on how you become humble.
If you want to be humble, act humble.
Advice to “be humble” isn’t helpful. And a lot of advice tells us to change our thinking and if we do that, we will change our action. But there’s a better way to become humble. Herminia Ibarra describes why in her excellent book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader.
“Aristotle observed that people become virtuous by acting virtuous: if you do good, you’ll be good. His insight has been confirmed in a wealth of social psychology research showing that people change their minds by first changing their behavior. Simply put, change happens from the outside in, not from the inside out.”
The way we get to be humble is to act humble.
OK, what does it mean to “act humble?”
When you act humble you act like every other person and their work is important. Costco founder Jim Sinegal was a fine a corporate example you can find. When Jena McGregor wrote about him in the Washington Post, she mentioned that Sinegal’s compensation package was about a third of the average big company CEO. Then she described how he worked.
“His office is a tiny alcove without a door; the furnishings are as fancy as folding chairs. When a reporter visits the headquarters, which does not have any public relations handlers on staff, Sinegal comes out to the reception desk himself. He also answers his own phone (“Sinegal!”).”
If you’re in a leadership role, pay attention to the trappings of your job. Be suspicious of things that shout, “I’m more important than you are!”
A few years ago, I watched the CEO of a major retailer visit a local store. The regional manager rented two SUVs to pick up the CEO and other people from the home office at the airport. When the CEO arrived at the store he swept in with his staff and started making notes. There was very little conversation with the people who worked in the store. After a huddled conversation with the store manager, the CEO and his entourage climbed back in the SUVs so they would not be late for their reservations at a fine local restaurant.
If you’re a leader, everything you do sends a message. If you want to act humble you have to choose your actions carefully.
Where to start
There are many possible starting points when you begin trying to act humble Anything that moves you in the right direction will work. But there is one question you can ask to help you evaluate the way you treat the people around you.
The best way to show that you value others is to give them time and attention. My friend Mike Henry suggests a question you can ask yourself often that cuts through the clutter and BS.
“How do you behave when you’re interrupted?”
I read this in a piece of writing that Mike shared with me. Since then I’ve been using it to evaluate whether I’m really as open and helpful as I think I am. The answers are both helpful and disconcerting.
They’re helpful because it’s easy for me to be attentive and helpful when the work day is over. The real test comes when I’m working.
They’re disconcerting because I’m discovering that my actions really don’t send the message I want. My facial expression and tone of voice say “My time is important, so make this quick.” Sometimes I check my phone when the other person is talking.
I’m working on getting better. I’m developing the practice of asking the other person to wait while I save any files and turn away from my computer. Then I can give them my full attention.
I’ve also developed a way to let people know that I’m deep in writing and should only be interrupted for emergencies.
The cautionary experience of Ben Franklin
Ben Franklin listed “Humility” as one of the thirteen virtues he wanted to attain. It wasn’t on his original list of virtues, but he added it after friends noted that his humility could use some work. Years later, he confided in his Autobiography that:
“I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”
That could be me, too. It could be you.
If you want to reap the benefits of humility you have to act humble. Try to act in ways that send the “I respect you” message. Test yourself by answering the question: “How do I behave when I’m interrupted?”
Some Quotes on Humility
Here are some quotes on humility that I’ve found helpful.
“Humility is the awareness that there’s a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong.”
~ David Brooks
“As an internal management value, humility means that you have an accurate self-image. You know your strengths and you know your challenges. You recognize your internal worth and you also recognize and respect the dignity and worth of every human being.”
~ David Dye and Karin Hurt
“Humility is the only way to resolve the conflicts and contradictions of leadership. You can avoid excessive pride only if you recognize that you’re human and need the help of others.”
~ James Kouzes and Barry Posner
“My own conviction is that every leader should have enough humility to accept, publicly, the responsibility for the mistakes of the subordinates he has himself selected and, likewise, to give them credit, publicly, for their triumphs.”
~ Dwight Eisenhower
“I feel that humility is the foundation of servant leadership. It means that you put others first, above yourself on a consistent basis. It means that you remove the status and personal gains from what you do as a leader, and begin to look primarily at what you accomplish in the lives of those you work with.”
~ Mark Deterding
Thanks for the inspiration
This subject has been bouncing around in my head for months but the inspiration to write about humility now was ignited by Ed Batista’s excellent post, “Humility.”
It might be worth adding the often quoted Golda Meir’s take on being humble; that is, “Don’t be so humble; you’re not that great.”
I love it, Nancy. Thanks for sharing it.