In a conversation with Charles B. Baker, OD guru at Ernst & Young some years ago he introduced me to a definition of leadership that I had not heard before but resonated with me instantly. It is that a leader undertakes his responsibilities with the attitude of a humble servant and the mindfulness of a beginner’s curious brain. The key concepts are humility and non-judgmental open-mindedness.
Just lately I reread a book that has languished on my shelf for quite a while. It is John Dickson’s “Humilitas: The Lost Key to Life, Love and Leadership” (2011)*. In it, he defines humility as “the ability to hold power loosely in the service of others”.
This is an enlightening book about the power of humility and a humble attitude in all dimensions of life including work and leadership. One of the most powerful new insights I took away from it this time is the impact of humility on the ability to learn.
Chris Argyris in his seminal paper, “How to Teach Smart People to Learn” (1990, Harv. Bus Rev.) showed that defensive behavior shut down the ability to learn even among some of the most highly educated and highly motivated professionals, mostly Harvard/Yale MBA’s. When things went south in the consulting arena, there was a strong tendency for the practitioners to become highly defensive, blaming everyone else (including their bosses and clients) for contributing to their failure. Their attitude made it virtually impossible to teach them to look at themselves.
We can expand on this by realizing that the probable source of their defensiveness was their arrogance, their lack of humility. They had never experienced failure before. They were the best of the best, the brightest of the bright. Humble was not in their vocabulary, not in their scope of behaviors.
Yet we see scenarios like this played out every day at work. People too often equate “humble” with “weak”. But, in fact, many of the best leaders instinctively demonstrate a humble attitude. They are quick to share credit, to use “we” instead of “I”, applaud others, lift up and recognize their employees, and turn the spotlight away from themselves. They become people we admire, we want to emulate and to follow.
And along with humility comes the ability to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out together”, the expression of that wide-eyed childlike curiosity. What can you do to foster the practice of humility at work, to hold power loosely in the service of others, to foster curiosity and learning over arrogance?
*Dickson, J., 2011, Humilitas: The Lost Key to Life, Love and Leadership, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 196 pp.
Note: The term “humility” comes from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as “humble”, but also as “grounded”, or “from the earth”, since it derives in turns from humus (earth). …Wiktionary
Frank Wantland – email@example.com