Yesterday i shared a short introduction to an idea for an essay on ‘The Humble Leader’. Today, i have felt encouraged to build the idea out further. This is a rewrite, and substantial build upon, yesterdays post.
Part 1: Society
These pages form a reflection on humility and how, in the Social Age, we can aspire to be more humble as leaders: it’s neither a definition, nor a route map. If anything, it’s a personal journey.
Humility may not be a state we attain, but is, perhaps, a light that shines upon our actions.
It’s not an intent, but rather a judgement. A measurement or shadow of our action.
Gain is not a finite resource: we can all win. Your success does not deplete mine. Sharing can empower us both. These pages are a commentary about winning, but strangely, winning by giving everything away.
We have constructed our society: it’s an aggregated, shared, belief system. Social norms, each with a history, often contested, and all, subject to our whim, able to change.
Take equality: society has consistently moved, adapted, evolved, not fast enough for some, yet too fast for others. Change has happened through consensus, and through opposition. It’s often been framed by bold action and sacrifice, led through brave leadership. But change is not simply about the loud and visible. It’s about our individual actions in the moment.
Brave leaders can be humble, but leaders are only one part of a system.
I might reflect on how our aggregated normalisation of behaviours has left us in a difficult place: a world dominated by oppositional power, the partisanship of occluded, unequal, divisive politics, arguably played by the wealthy, for individual gain, more than by the many, for the good of society.
The professional and performance nature of politics today may have led it simply to form an extension of the market. Regulator and beneficiary. There are poor politicians, but they form a minority.
Of course, humility is not about poverty: i see no reason why a rich woman may not be humble, and a poor man arrogant.
Within industry, the market rewards success. Success, it can seem, at all costs. We may not seek the hero leader, but the financial reward, and risk of failure, may drive us there. Inherently it can seem as though the role of leadership is to direct, and of others to follow. But the corollary of this is not true: the strength, the win, does not come from pointing. It comes from carrying the load, and that load is shared throughout the system.
Indeed, the model whereby we pay the people at the top more money is, itself, a social construct. Power systems based upon physical dominance led to power systems based upon resource dominance, and hence into organisational structures based upon pure power dominance. I have it: you lack it.
The normalisation of behaviours, from politics to industry, leaves us here, in the 21st century, with a model that may be flawed. Our hierarchies of power and wealth may be outdated. It may be that we need strength throughout the systems, not simply heroes at the top. And we may need more distributed fairness, not simply contractual bonds.
Perhaps we should seek to remake our society with humility: a society where kindness forms our basis for action, where pride sits often in the achievement of others, and where the greatest good comes from being a humble leader.
Part 2: Salvation
The 21st century is feeling the impacts of collaborative technology, technology that can connect us globally, and yet reinforces our divisions. Technology will not make us humble: indeed, some would argue that most current paradigms of social media encourage egotism and narcissistic pride.
Perhaps the humility we need is humility distributed throughout a system: a system that listens as much as it talks. That gives respect as much as it demands attention.
The world sits on the edge of a precipice: deepening wealth inequality, ongoing resource depletion, widespread political turmoil and the unsettling of established order, gender based power imbalances, failed national approaches to immigration, systemic racism and homophobia, insurgency, failed or failing financial models.
We see foundational shifts in Organisations, forces at play that will transform everything: the potential (or threat) of automation, imposed social accountability, the urgency of privacy, the rise of the transnationals, the fractured Social Contract, democratised creativity, and the consequences of failing to be deeply fair.
Our salvation will not come from our politicians and bankers, from our legal systems or bosses. It won’t be a solution imposed from above. If we are to step back from the brink, it will be through a distributed, yet aggregated, salvation. It will be quiet voices that will lead. It will be consensus and respect that drive the unity. Or it will be if we can find our humility in leadership. There will be no single hero, but rather the heroism of simplicity, leadership with kindness, unity through humility.
Salvation, if it comes from anywhere, may start within. It may start by asking questions:
Not ‘what will you do?’, but ‘how can i listen?’.
Not ‘who can i blame?’, but ‘how can i help?’.
Not ‘what will it cost?’, but ‘what am i prepared to invest?’.
The answers may not come through heroic leadership, but rather distributed leadership.
They may not come from bold steps from the front, but rather from quiet steps in every direction.
The leadership we need may be strong, but it will be humble.
This book is a reflection on humility in leadership: on why humility may be the hardest thing to gain, and the easiest thing to fall by the wayside.
Writing about humility does not mean that one is humble: just the opposite in fact, it may be an aspiration for a journey, the start of a sketch map to travel through.
Part 3: Listening
We easily spend the time we should be listening instead deciding what to say. The pace, the tempo, the demands, of our everyday encourage a response more so than a silence. We seek to validate, to deny, to counter, or respond, to any story that is shared: outside of the theatre, we rarely find a pure space to listen, and a permission to do just that.
Silence is not affirmation.
Silence can be respectful.
Silence can be a breath, a pause, or a deeper moment of contemplation.
Silence can be the wave that washes the sand clean again.
We can listen: feel ourselves connect in anger or denial, in pride or power, but let that wash away, move into reflection and consideration, move into acceptance and gratitude.
Part 4: Roots
Where are you grounded?
Our roots form the foundation of our power: we may be grounded within a system, a structure, a formal framework. Our roots may be our qualifications, our rank, our seniority, our wealth, our status, or our job title.
Roots hold us steady, but hold us still. Our roots make us safe, whilst holding us true to systems that may be outdated. Roots can make it hard to change.
Humility may be the process of unhitching ourselves from status within a system, and investing ourselves, instead, in service of the people around us. Humility may give us a power that is granted, not claimed.
To be humble in our approach is not to forgo power or opportunity, but perhaps instead to open ourselves to a new form of power. To be considered, to be reflective, to be generous, to be thoughtful, these are things that come at no cost. We can be reflective, yet still decisive. We can be generous with our encouragement, our gratitude, and our connections: generosity does not require money.
Wisdom is our notion of the considered response: to be a wise woman, or a wise man, brings images of grey hair and wrinkled smiles, but wisdom does not need to be scholarly and purely a feature of age. We can have ‘wisdom beyond our years’, as though it were an exception. Perhaps to be a child is, itself, a humility, for we have not yet learned to be constrained or arrogant in full measure.“