April 6, 2020

Presence of Humility

by Wes Martin

At Strata Leadership we offer various training topics to organizations looking to develop their leaders and sustain a healthy organizational culture. Within this offering, there are training titles such as “Communication & Listening Skills,” “Leading with Emotional Intelligence,” “Building Trust,” and “Managing Conflict” to name a few. Building upon the C3 Model, which postulates that character plus competence results in consistency, we typically explore each topic through the lens of which character qualities and competencies are needed to excel in these various areas. Without fail, as we go through the process of asking ourselves which of the 36 character qualities within the Character CORE vocabulary is most necessary to excel in areas such as communication, emotional intelligence, trust, and conflict, the quality of “humility” is always near the top of the list – more often than any other quality.

Humility connects. Pride separates.

Leadership is influence. The ability to lead effectively is contingent on the ability to connect with those you lead in meaningful ways that leave others wanting to follow you. Without practicing humility, you are in essence guaranteeing that others will not willingly choose to follow you because you have not fostered connection through the practice of humble leadership behaviors.

Where pride exists, humility cannot. In the same way that a flame consumes oxygen from a room, the presence of pride prevents humility from having the air that it needs to exist. Thus, the first step in a leader’s journey toward a greater expression of humility is to remove or address sources of pride that have infiltrated the atmosphere of the team or organization.

Empathy as a Remedy to Pride

Employing empathy, or the experience of understanding or sharing in the feelings of others, is an effective remedy to removing pride from the environment, thereby allowing humility to flourish. Empathy begins where closed-mindedness ends. In social psychology, there is a principle known as the fundamental attribution error (FAE). FAE suggests that we are reluctant to give others the benefit of the doubt when they act, behave, or think in a manner that is inconsistent with our beliefs and/or worldview. More specifically, the FAE postulates that we often attribute the shortcomings of others (as determined by our perspective) as being flaws inherent to their character.

For instance, imagine that a coworker arrives at an important meeting 15-minutes late. You note the time they arrived and you begin to make negative inferences about your coworker, creating a narrative in your mind that they don’t value punctuality, that they have little respect for others’ time, and that they are late because they don’t practice good time management and thus are a lazy, good-for-nothing sluggard.

The fascinating thing about the research surrounding FAE is that while we are quick to interpret the non-socially-acceptable behaviors of others as character-deficiencies (dispositional), we are quick to interpret our own non-socially-acceptable behaviors to circumstances beyond our control (situational). For instance, if we were to arrive at the same meeting 15-minutes late, we would be a lot more likely to let ourselves off the hook. Thus, the narrative that we create for ourselves is that we had meant to fill up the tank of our car the night before, but forget and only realized when we turned the ignition this morning that we didn’t have enough gas to get to work. Or, my child has been having a rough time at school, so instead of having her ride the bus this morning, I decided to drop her off.

In other words, unlike my coworker I am really a punctual person, I have a high degree of respect for the time of others, and I have great time management skills. It’s just that, well, the circumstances of the morning were beyond my control.

Cultivating Empathy

Where empathy begins, pride ends and where pride ends, humility flourishes. Empathetic thinking is a skill that must be carefully and deliberately cultivated. I have struggled with empathy for years and have only recently begun to receive the benefits of shifting my natural response tendency from prideful judgement to humble understanding. My tendency to be narrow-minded in my approach to what consists of achieving excellence in life has led me to apply my standards ruthlessly to others, leaving little room for individual expression or difference in temperament. Left unchecked, this philosophical approach causes me to be exacting, harsh, and difficult to get along with. As a leader it leaves me isolated and lacking in the diversity of perspective needed to be innovative.

Several years ago as I was driving down the road, I noticed a car that I found to be outlandish, impractical, and attention-seeking. As someone who values tradition, conformity, and modesty, I found myself immediately submitting to a mental framework of judgment and pride. Frustrated with myself for the intensity of my own pride in the face of something as silly as a car, I made a decision that my mental model was in need of serious adjustment.

At that moment, I asked myself a question that I’ve since adopted as an individual best-practice in cultivating a spirit of empathy. I asked myself, “What is an acceptable reason why someone would drive a car like that?” As bizarre as it sounds, the reason that I came up with was that the car belonged to their brother who had recently passed away and they drove it as a way to feel connected to him. By forcing myself to consider plausible alternatives, I am forcing my mind to entertain narratives that disarm me of my prideful judgment and encourage feelings of empathy, understanding, acceptance, and ultimately, humility.

Humility is Not Optional

To be an effective leader, employee, or teammate you have to create connections with your coworkers, embrace the ideas and perspectives of others, champion diverse thought to solve difficult problems, and create a culture of belonging and unity – all of which is impossible without the presence of humility. It has been said that in humility you are able to consider others as more important than yourself, looking to their interests above your own. This can be seen as a radical approach to leading and relating to others, but it is one that all of the great leaders throughout history have embraced. As a leader, your job is to elevate the team and organization above any one individual, including yourself. This can only be accomplished through the practice of radical, intentional, and consistent humility.