God must like ordinary folk, he made so many of us. ~ Abraham Lincoln
It’s counter-cultural. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s paradoxical. As leaders we’re conditioned into its antithesis. Yet, it has proven itself to be the single character trait that endows leaders with the unparalleled ability to expand into greatness – personally and organizationally. That trait is deep personal humility.
First of all let me share, as a recovering arrogant ego-maniac in search of peace and authentic power, I luckily found, and fell in love with the utter magnificence in this ancient virtue. And while I cannot honestly claim to have any humility, it has become my life’s work – research, understanding, and practice – and I’ve come to love this virtue for it’s simple elegance and practical power.
What is Humility?
Humility is often misunderstood. The notion is typically fraught with the religious connotation of being passive and meek. The oxford dictionary on-line defines it as “the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance”. Wikipedia says it’s “the quality of being modest and respectful.”
And while it may present as lowly, meek, servile, even spineless at times, that is far from it’s essence. One helpful way of understanding humility is to look at it in the center of two polarized ways of feeling – unworthy and arrogant. Humility stands in the middle – as the opposite of both.
On one side of a continuum is unworthiness – where we feel not good enough, inadequate, low self esteem. Unworthiness isn’t real – we only make it so by believing it.
The other side of the continuum is arrogance – where we feel egotistical, grandiose, pompous and proud . Arrogance isn’t real. It’s a compensatory mask to hide its nemesis – feelings of unworthiness, inadequacy and low self esteem.
Humility is real. Humility neutralizes the power drain from traversing the two polarities of believing we’re better than others – arrogance, or believing we don’t measure up – unworthiness, both erroneous perceptions disconnecting us from ourselves, our organizations and families.
Humility therefore becomes the access point of unlimited confidence, dignity, possibility and power.
5 Steps To The Power of Humility
Humility is not something we acquire and it’s not a “skill” we master. As St. Francis de Assisi said “humility is lost the minute anyone thinks they’ve got it”.
Humility is a state of being whose only point of power is in the present moment. It’s the natural state we’ve been conditioned away from in a chest beating, red carpet walking, all about me – ego based society.
Therefore, to withstand overwhelming cultural influences, for many of us, humility must be practiced daily to be embodied. Below are 5 practices:
1. Let go of the need to know it all
Greek philosopher Socrates was pronounced the wisest man in the world by the Oracle of Delphi because he knew he knew nothing at all. And from a place of not knowing, he approached people and situations with a “beginners mind”, an “empty cup”. If you approach business situations with a genuine innocence and healthy curiosity, you’ll clear away so much mental noise – that you’ll be amazed at the wisdom and insights you can access. I invite you to try this in one meeting this week.
2. Practice unconditional positive regard
Practice treating each person, in the face of wanting to judge negatively, with presence, compassion and understanding. This is a powerful antidote to egotistical judgement that runs rampant in organizations and impedes relationships, cultures and a healthy planet. Practice seeing all your people in their highest future possibility. And when constructive feedback is necessary, remember to channel it to your team’s ideas or behavior, as opposed to their identity.
3. Improve your intuitive listening
The ability to access the greatest intelligence beyond the mind’s current knowledge lives inside each of us. Einstein, Shakespeare and Mozart intuitively knew this. The question is: are you listening for your brilliance? Be receptive to it, hear it, respect it, harness it, and serve it. Take time for solitude in the morning and evening and practice observing thoughts, feelings and sensations. Practice discerning between the mental noise – competing agendas in your organization and life – and your source of real wisdom.
4. Observe your ego
Our levels of humility are inversely related to the size of our egos. We must garner an earnest intention to witness and deflate our egos. Simply see the impulse to behave proudly, entitled and demanding, and in that moment ask yourself: how can I serve – the situation, the individuals, the moment? Choose skillfully. Shifting our attitudes from wanting to giving injects serious momentum on the path to humility.
5. Serve your stakeholders
Humility is service – from a place of acceptance and compassion. As affirmed servant leaders of Southwest Airlines, Wegmans Food Market, Zappos, Starbucks, and WholeFoods know, leadership greatness comes from service. It’s always all about your team – not you. As leaders we’re stewards. Our people are on loan to us, and our job is to nurture, coach and develop them. Each team-mate must subvert his ego – understanding that no individual is as smart as the collective. Servant leadership is a clear example of harnessing the power of humility to drive purposeful growth.
Humility is also a paradox of sorts. As soon as you think you’ve got it, you don’t. It’s a state of being whose only point of power is in the present moment – in flow. When we let go of the need to prove we’re “good enough”, resign as self imposed masters of our universes, deflate our egos, practice unconditional positive regard and serve our people, we cultivate the magnificent power in humility.