Cultivating Humility

It’s a way of looking at my world

Leading with humility isn’t a skill or a competency. It’s a virtue.

Think of compassion, kindness, courage, patience. How do they come to be strong elements of a person’s character? Very simply, they come directly from the practice of being awake to life and what’s happening in the present moment. You can orient yourself to ask, What am I learning from this experience? What does this life situation call for right now?

People have been asking those questions and working to cultivate those values from the days of the ancient Greeks. Their culture made it a little easier than it might be for us today because they openly celebrated such pursuits and encouraged the exploration of questions like, What does it mean to live a virtuous life?

They were conversant in the answers. The ancient Greeks knew that virtues are those elements of human behavior that elevate us to our highest selves. They enable people to live and act in ways that raise the level of humanity.

When people haven’t had enough opportunity to learn and develop hard-wired virtuous behavior, there are a lot of missing pieces. Life is a lot more difficult in the absence of consciousness about things like love, kindness, compassion and courage.

Yet, it isn’t ever too late. Anyone can choose to expand their awareness and lead with greater humility.

There are three key elements to getting started

First, it’s important to understand that it’s not a skill. It’s not a competency. I’m not going to go and get trained on it. It’s a way of looking at my world and living in it and reflecting on it, every moment and every day.

Think about the lives of virtuous people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa. You’re looking at people who show up with everything they’ve got — compassion to the nth degree.

While these big examples in history are useful and real, you can also find a role model in the guy sitting at the next desk. There are quiet examples of humility, kindness and compassion everywhere you look, once you set an intention to see them. Just look, and keep on looking.

Secondly, take a good look at what you love most and then examine to what extent it lines up with your life. So when people say, I love my family, I will say, Great. Tell me how your actions line up with that.

The cultivation of humility ties in to this kind of work because it’s a virtue that’s grounded deeply in serving others. When you take the time to really look at where you place the value and meaning in your life and how that aligns with the quality of humility, it can be transformational. If you notice that what you’re valuing is centered around your power or your influence, that’s a cue you’re probably on the wrong end of the humility scale.

I love this quote from Socrates that sums it up better than I ever could:

You are a citizen of a great and powerful nation. Are you not ashamed that you give so much time to the pursuit of money and reputation and honors and care so little for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your soul?

The third element to consider is the old fake it ’til you make it.

Plenty of research says your life is literally created by your thoughts. When things are tough and you aren’t sure what to do, one response can be to behave as if you are the humble, authentic leader you are reaching to be.

You can simply choose to behave as if you are already there, by consciously putting others first, even when your inner voice is screaming that you will lose something.

Over time, you’ll move from faking it to making it. And your family, team and organization will make the move right along with you.

Next up: Opportunistic/evolutionary organizations vs. intentional organizations. Which one are you?

6 comments on “Cultivating Humility

  1. There are limitations for those that are overly humble though, which is a point that I think gets overlooked. Humility is a virtue, yes, but it can also devlop into a weakness if not balanced properly.

    • This is an interesting take. I agree that humble people – defined for me, as those who put the interests/outcomes of others ahead of their own – might pay price, i.e., be seen as weak. However, you can take a look at what Jim Collins described in Good To Great as Level 5 Leaders. They combined both Will plus Humility. They were never seen as weak. Their determination in the face of big challenges and goals stood out. Humility and Courage combined. Check out the work of Dr. Brene Brown who claims vulnerability is seen as weakness when in fact it is courage. To be seen as imperfect is actually an attractive leadership characteristic. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and adaptive change. Thanks for commenting

  2. I know a lot of people that when posed the question “tell me how your actions line up with that?” would flounder, and I think it’s something that doesn’t asked enough in this day and age.

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