Thursday, May 15, 2008
Many years ago, one of my university professors mentioned that "windowsill" was voted the most beautiful word in the English language. Being an armchair linguist, this factoid naturally stayed with me. Words have enormous power. They can make us erupt into laughter or bring tears to our eyes. They can influence, inspire, manipulate and shock. They can build and destroy. Some words have different effects on different people. One such word is humility. It is one of those words that are seldom in neutral gear. Some, like me, love the word and all it stands for. Some almost fear it and interpret it synonymously with lack of self-confidence or timidity. The dictionary defines humility as modesty, lacking pretence, not believing that you are superior to others. An ancillary definition includes: "Having a lowly opinion of oneself, meekness". The word "humility" first struck me in the context of leadership when Jim Collins mentioned it in his seminal work We often confuse humility with timidity. Humility is not clothing ourselves in an attitude of self-abasement or self-denigration. Humility is all about maintaining our pride about who we are, about our achievements, about our worth – but without arrogance – it is the antithesis of hubris, that excessive, arrogant pride which often leads to the derailment of some corporate heroes, as it does with the downfall of the tragic hero in Greek drama. It's about a quiet confidence without the need for a meretricious selling of our wares. It's about being content to let others discover the layers of our talents without having to boast about them. It's a lack of arrogance, not a lack of aggressiveness in the pursuit of achievement. An interesting dichotomy is that, often, the higher people rise, the more they have accomplished, the higher the humility index. Those who achieve the most brag the least, and the more secure they are in themselves, the more humble they are. "True merit, like a river, the deeper it is, the less noise it makes". (Edward Frederick Halifax). We have all come across people like that and feel admiration for them. There is also an understated humility of every day people we work with who have the ability to get the job done without drawing attention to themselves. Something interesting happens, too, when we approach situations from a perspective of humility: it opens us up to possibilities, as we choose open-mindedness and curiosity over protecting our point of view. We spend more time in that wonderful space of the beginner's mind, willing to learn from what others have to offer. We move away from pushing into allowing, from insecure to secure, from seeking approval to seeking enlightenment. We forget about being perfect and we enjoy being in the moment. There are times when swallowing one's pride is particularly difficult and any intentions of humility fly out the window, as we get engaged in a contest of perfection, each side seeking to look good. If you find yourself in such no-win situations, consider developing some strategies to ensure that the circumstances don't lead you to lose your grace. Try this sometimes: just stop talking and allow the other person to be in the limelight. There is something very liberating in this strategy. Here are three magical words that will produce more peace of mind than a week at an expensive retreat: "You are right." Catch yourself if you benignly slip into over preaching or coaching without permission – is zeal to impose your point of view overtaking discretion? Is your correction of others reflective of your own needs? Seek others' input on how you are showing up in your leadership path. Ask: "How am I doing?" It takes humility to ask such a question. And even more humility to consider the answer. Encourage the practice of humility in your life through your own example: every time you share credit for successes with others, you reinforce the ethos for your constituents. There are many benefits to practicing humility, to being in a state of non-pretence: it improves relationships across all levels, it reduces anxiety, it encourages more openness and paradoxically, it enhances one's self-confidence. It opens a window to a higher self. For me, it replaces "windowsill" as the most beautiful word in the English language.