Inspiration is rooted in character. However, to live an authentic life of character we need to have a high level of awareness.
Humility is About Self-awareness
A prerequisite to humility is self-awareness. The advice of the oracle at Delphi “Know thyself” is at the root of humility. Self-awareness, according to Daniel Goleman, is the
“ Ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others.”
Self-awareness is essential to humility because by recognizing both our strengths and limitations we keep ourselves from slipping into either a sense of inferiority or superiority. In remaining self-aware, we neither over-dramatize our weaknesses nor flaunt our strengths. When we are humble we are being as realistic as we can be about ourselves. We are in balance and aware of our humanity and the real value of our person. The path to this awareness often passes through difficult times when our vulnerabilities and weaknesses are revealed. And the honest and accurate feedback of others about our blind spots is essential to this process. We need to put our egos aside, listen to the feedback we don’t want to hear, and finally internalize such advice and recalibrate our lives accordingly. We all have the capacity to grow and improve our leadership ability even though we may feel fragile in the midst of tough feedback.
Next we explore how awareness arises from the realization of our human fragility.
Humility Teaches Us That Life is Fragile And We Are Mortal
The word humble is derived from the Latin humus meaning earth, ground, or soil. It is reminiscent of the name given to the first biblical figure Adam whose name is derived from the Hebrew word for ground or dust. He was literally a ‘man of the dust.’ The Taoist philosophy, found in the book of ancient Chinese wisdom Chuang Tzu, reflects a similar theme. The universe and its people are viewed as a mighty mud ball (Hun Tun -’dark essence’). Each reference reminds us how vulnerable we are and how little control we have over life and death – in a moment we can be killed or disabled by sickness or accident. A friend of ours describes his dealing with mortality like a person avoiding a sniper. Especially as we get older and face mounting health problems we are glad to just dodge the bullet of death. We can lose all of our material possessions in a fire. A sudden corporate merger can mean the end of our job.
The notion that we are fragile/mortal serves humility in the sense that we realize that we don’t have unlimited time available and therefore live every moment to its fullest. We also don’t waste time on the regrets of the past or the anxieties of the future. All that really matters is that we live life to the fullest right now. We also embrace our ‘mud nature’ by factoring in the possibility of judgment errors and even business failure.
In this sense then, humility is the deterrent to the brash cockiness that thinks it knows all the answers. One of the characteristics of an effective leader is that he/she is able to selectively and judiciously reveal his/her weaknesses. Such humility serves to make the person more approachable.
Humility Leads to Gratitude for the Gift of Life
Occasionally we find ourselves astonished at the goodness of life. Most of the time, however, we wander through life with little gratitude. We fail to notice the beauty of the countryside or the kindness of others. We can spend most of our reflective time focusing on the past and especially the future without truly being in the present. As John Lennon cogently noted in one of his songs: “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.”
Humility and gratitude go hand-in-hand. People who are filled with gratitude have experienced extreme hardship or suffered profound losses. For example, you meet many grateful people who are recovering alcoholics, or those who have found genuine love after enduring years in a loveless relationship. Sometimes it takes the shock of facing one’s own mortality to experience gratitude. Playwright Dennis Potter (who was dying from cancer) remarked during his last television interview that he was living so intensely in the present that he noticed the beauty in ordinary things that he’d hardly paid attention to before. He captured this beautifully in his comment: “The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.” How few of us achieve that level of awareness and appreciation for life! And also how often we fail to celebrate others.
One of the most underused motivation strategies used by leaders is appreciation, another manifestation of gratitude. How to make everyone a hero without negating a performance evaluation system or trivializing praise is a key skill leaders need to acquire. Often leaders spend so much time focusing on what is wrong with a situation that they forget that the genuine celebration of a person or a team makes is one factor that makes people go to work excited about their goals and willing to persevere during the difficult times.
In the next blog we will explore