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The Lessons of Humility

Posted on December 28, 2018 by Sheila Vasan Singla

One of the projects that we are doing this year is driving a culture change exercise across one the largest organizations in India. A few days ago - I was enabling a video shoot of the chairman of this organization. As a part of the journey, we decided to co-opt the chairman’s wife to do a video as well - reaching out to all the employees and their families.

We were a team of about seven people. We were shooting non-stop at the chairman’s residence - a beautiful bungalow manned by a retinue of staff. The video shoot took longer than we had expected, and it slipped well over lunch time. All of us had had an early morning start and were decidedly hungry. But given the fact that we were with the chairman, we just ignored the entreaties of a noisy hungry stomach.

The chairman’s wife came up to me and said, “You all must be hungry - let me organize some lunch for you”. I decided to throw formality to the winds and accepted her offer eagerly. Leaving her to speak to her staff, I returned to the shoot. I knew she would instruct her staff to rustle up something for us.

After about 15 minutes - we needed to do some more shots of the chairman’s wife, but she was not around - so I went off along some high-ceilinged corridors looking for her. Before I knew it - I had arrived into the large kitchen of the Bungalow.

It took me a little while to decipher what I saw in front of me - it was the chairman’s wife - rolling out poories and frying them. She was making lunch for us - all by herself.

For a moment - I did not react. I stood there with my jaw dropped - then politeness got the better of me and I rushed forward to help her. She looked up at me, smiled and said - “Had I known earlier that it would take so long - I would have made a proper lunch. I hope Aloo Poori will be ok.”

I was just swept away by the humility and graciousness that she displayed. That meal was delicious. Freshly made and served with hospitality and humility.

We often wear our positions like badges. Often a spouse will use reflected power like an entitlement. I have seen people who are tough and rude to people who can’t do anything for them. To see this degree of humility was an eye opener for me.

This got me thinking. There is a life span of a word and some words have reached their end. Humility seems to be one such word. Once a virtue that was demanded of growing children by their parents - it now seems like just a word left behind from a bygone era.

I remember my father talking of great men and women and highlighting their humility. He often quoted Ernest Hemingway, who had said

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow beings; true nobility is being superior to your former self”.

But that is a lesson that is not really in the syllabus these days.


The question is, does humility in today’s social media driven world really have any value? Nowadays life is a “brag”. We are constantly putting ourselves out there - showcasing ourselves at every opportunity. I have been guilty of it as well. As leaders of today, we believe that we need to cultivate larger than life personalities. We often see humility as a weakness. For some reason, it is seen as taking away from the confidence and aggression that today’s leaders supposedly need.

As I recalled the many leaders I had met over the last 3 decades of my leadership development work, I realized that the power of humility is tremendous. There was a pattern that had clearly emerged. The leaders that had been most effective were those that had used humility as a strength.

1.These leaders seemed to a have a purpose that was far beyond themselves. They had a purpose which extended far beyond themselves and they saw themselves as an instrument in driving that larger purpose. It was really not about them at all.

2. Involved listening came easily to them. I remembered these leaders appearing shy - they listened far more than they spoke. They appeared thoughtful and asked a lot more of questions than most. They made people feel that they were important and were heard. They reiterated that they did not have all the answers.

3. These leaders were open to feedback and sought it from all quarters. At times, they often seemed self-deprecating. They were constantly asking how they, their people and their businesses could improve. They would elicit critiques and hard honesty in all their people interactions.


4. This openness to feedback would spark deep introspection and that, in turn, led to deep self-awareness. This was what made these leaders get better on a day to day basis. They did not get carried by a sense of self-importance. Instead, they were entirely aware of their own foibles. It is easy for a successful leader to start feeling infallible, but a humble leader is one who is consciously working on their shortcomings all the time.

5. I found these leaders downright authentic - there was no posturing as far as they were concerned. They were unabashed about their origins, their backgrounds, their beliefs and their value system. They remained true to themselves and their core seemed to be unchanging. This made them inwardly resolute and strong enough to accept that they were not invincible.

6. The decision-making process that these leaders followed was a robust one, based on an altruistic greater good. They would very rarely focus on what benefits a certain decision would bring to them personally. Their humility ensured that they took themselves out of the equation while taking decisions - ensuring unselfish decision making.


7. Most of these leaders played the leadership card less and played the enabler card more. They were not caught by the trappings of their position. What they focused on more was working to make their teams better than themselves. They moved completely away from being self-centered to being team centered.

The more I think about it - the more I see the business case for humility. Great leadership is steeped in humility and it leads to holistic management, robust governance and stronger business results. The time to resurrect a word, whose usage both in language and practice has dropped, is here. It is an incredible quality that will keep us leaders grounded through the buffeting times in our careers.

After all - in the words of C.S. Lewis:
"Humility is not about thinking less about yourself - it is about thinking about yourself less."

And is that not what leaders are supposed to do?

This article was originally published at LinkedIn

ABOUT AUTHOR

Sheila is the Founder & Principal Associate of Chrysalis. She is a pioneer in Human Performance Improvement in India who has been passionate about driving business impact through Results Based Learning™.

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