31 - Humility

Why Humility Isn’t Who You Think

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A Tale of Two CEO’s and You.

When the 15 minutes of fame I am sure he coveted finally arrived, it probably did not turn out quite the way this CEO envisioned. With an almost ethereal vigor, when his moment in the spotlight arrived, this hapless business executive tried in vain to defend the actions of his company to raise the price of a 62-year-old “orphan drug” from the obscurity of affordability into the limelight of commercial exploitation. As one commentator put it, “the anvil of social media landed squarely on his head,” and it was not pretty.

At first, his explanation was simply, “it’s a business decision,” which of course missed the point entirely, for the public outcry had nothing to do with business judgment but rather with the realm of morality and the milk of human kindness. In a world gripped by images of the stateless washed ashore on the beaches of Europe and homeless faces pressed to its burgeoning razor wire, the “mob of social media” is in no mood for visible, crass, commercial exploitation. Still, this young, brash, now chastised yet unrepentant CEO, seeking the single aim of wealth, seems perplexed by all the pushback his decision has aroused and that has now curtailed his grandest intentions.

In sharp contrast, within the same week, a single man—also a CEO of sorts, but one who aspires to live in a small apartment and insists on driving in a small, simple car—rose before a joint meeting in Washington, at the hearth of free-enterprise, to the thunderous applause of his heretofore ferociously divided audience: the U.S. Congress. This man, dressed all in white and now well into his seventies, the leader of a global organization just a couple of years ago declared “irrelevant and out of touch,” proclaimed the essential requirement of the golden rule.

This CEO, Pope Francis, oversees a vast organization with “branch plants” in virtually every town in the western world, not to mention exploding growth in South America, Asia and Africa, seems well aware that the habits of his life, the words of his mouth and the meditations of his heart are on display for the world and therefore they may foment change for the good.

[Photo: flickr user photo phiend/ used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

For many years, shaped by the cultural celebration of success, we have tended to see humility as some kind of disability. Such an attribute is hardly going to win a round of funding on Dragons’ Den or the Shark Tank, let alone to exemplify the next conqueror of Everest, Broadway star, brilliant satirist, or stellar politician.

Lord Thompson of Fleet, one of the last of the great press barons, once opined, “Humility, I’ve no use for it! Where would I be if I’d been humble?!” Humility, in our culture, has been associated with a lack of self-confidence that so many self-help programs incessantly promise to cultivate. And yet, for some reason brash self-confidence was no help to that first CEO in quelling the ire of thousands of critics while simultaneously rows and rows of people lined the streets just to glimpse the second CEO pass by in the small car.

Humility is unpopular culturally for three main reasons:

  1. it is thought to interfere with our legitimate ambitions
  2. it is assumed to weaken our defense of a righteous cause, and
  3. it is believed to show lack of self-confidence.

It seems hardly likely that the publisher who cheerfully brought us the late President Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage would have been so enthusiastic with a volume entitled Profiles in Humility. If we are to respond to these cultural cues, then it would seem that Nelson Mandela would have been better off to emerge from Robben Island to mount a sensational tour de force rather than with the gritty realism of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Ultimately, Mandela’s humility was a key factor in moving South Africa away from the lengthy period of hatred and division that included apartheid. Similarly, it was humility that prompted both Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain to step aside and let the bolder Churchill seize the task to which he was much better suited than either of them: to pull Britain together and lead it through the nightmare of war.

Humility is the quality of accurately seeing one’s place in social context and pursuing right relationship to others. Humility does not demand cowed timidity but is a virtue that insists upon of self-awareness, social intelligence, confidence and service to others.

It is no longer adequate for business to own a space of pure commercial exploitation for its own (as in owners’) sake, but instead business must be put to work in service of human needs. To serve demands humility, and that a business should accurately see its place in its social context and pursue right relationship to others. If ever we shall transform this remarkable institution called business and harness its unparalleled capacity to do good, we will succeed because we will have been able to place it as a servant of good, not as an amoral agent of its own absorption.

The “secret sauce” of such a transformation lies not in clever change efforts or even well chosen and well-articulated strategy. Rather it is found in people. A company that exhibits humility will only emerge inasmuch as its people see themselves accurately in social context and pursue right relationship to others. In other words, a business shall only inherit the virtue of such necessary humility from the humble leaders who must come to inhabit it. Humility will emerge in business if a critical mass of the people who work in and buy from that business both call for and exhibit this virtue and its characteristics.

The humble leader, as agent of change, may be a private or public person, CEO or financial analyst, corporate officer or co-op student. She will inspire strong convictions in others, yet remain open to discussion and new perspectives. He serves, he cares, he is loyal, and he is respected. She is a realist, but her optimism or idealism is infectious. He will quietly challenge the erosion of consumer value and she will trumpet new business models. They are vibrant, fresh with new possibilities. For the humble leader, mystery does not produce fear, but rather beckons to an undiscovered reality.

This movement towards a more purposeful form of enterprise that shows humility is both a current business reality and an epic struggle, a branding campaign and a moral dilemma, a clarion call for better and a mythical, even mystical, paradox. As John Wilson, a personal mentor, once said to me, “Chris, don’t try to make business nice. It can’t be nice. But it can be better.” Wise words, kindly intoned, long remembered.

And so, if business is to become an agent for good then it will do so only to the extent that each of us who choose this domain in which to express our gifts can see our own needs and wants accurately within our broader social context and pursue right relationship with others and at the same time be possessed of sufficient moral courage to act with conviction and virtue to fix what we see is wrong and encourage what we see is right. Together, we will make the world a little better. It is up to us, but it will most certainly require us to first choose whom we will serve.

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