“Sir, you have something between your teeth”: Some Thoughts on Humility

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The higher someone climbs in an organization, the less likely he is to have someone alert him to the fact that he has a piece of spinach stuck between his teeth.

We all understand why no one wants to be the bearer of this unfortunate news. But why, after someone finally brings it to their boss’ attention, does the boss get a little bit irritated? Why does he secretly wish that everyone had pretended nothing was amiss? I would argue that it has a lot to do with humility. Receiving unflattering news is difficult for anyone because it means that 1.) You have flaw, and 2.) People have noticed it.

Humility is an extremely important virtue for a leader to have. If you’ve never thought so before, it might be because you misunderstand what the word really means. Being humble does not mean thinking that you are insignificant or worthless. And it doesn’t mean that you have to deny your own accomplishments or be falsely modest. Humility is about acknowledging the intrinsic value in every person, no matter their job title or background, and elevating them to your level.

Humility requires a change of perspective that reduces the gap between how much you value yourself and how much you value others. The other component of humility is recognizing that even though each individual is of incalculable worth, no one is perfect. We all have blind spots, including you. Everyone has had an experience when they were totally convinced about one thing or the other only to later discover that they were completely wrong. It pays to remember such things. These helpful little seeds of self-doubt help to immunize leaders against hubris.

Perhaps now you’ve had a shift in your understanding of humility, but you don’t believe that being humble will help you to become a better leader. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great describes his attempt to understand what caused good companies to become great companies. His study was rigorous and empirical. One commonality that he found in all great companies was a type of leader that practiced what he called Level 5 Leadership. In addition to intense professional will (or, resolve), all Level 5 Leaders had a phenomenal level of humility. In other words, one of these CEO’s wouldn’t be flustered if an intern riding in the elevator with him pointed out a piece of spinach stuck between his teeth.

I wholeheartedly agree with Jim Collins’ claims about the Level 5 Leader. I can personally attest to the impact of a humble leader.  I had the pleasure of working at Herman Miller while Max De Pree was the CEO—a true Level 5 Leader. Max wrote several short but great books on leadership. What strikes me about these books is how little he talks about himself in a self-aggrandizing way. The books consist mostly of what Max has learned from others whom he admires. They are honest accounts of how he used to think one way, learned that he was wrong and now tries to think and behave differently. While he could stand in the spotlight and talk about his many accomplishments, he chooses instead to highlight those around him and how much they helped him to develop his skills. From my positive experience at Herman Miller while Max De Pree was at the helm, I believe that humility truly is the secret ingredient. It allows leaders to doggedly pursue something larger than themselves, stay keenly in touch with reality, and gain the respect and loyalty of their employees.

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