Australian Institute of Management -- Management Today
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Mark Strom, PhD, FAICD
Mark Strom has partnered people in many walks of life as they transform their organisations and communities. His clients have included mining companies, financial institutions, federal and state government agencies, and not for profit organisations.
He is an inter-disciplinary thinker, a philosopher interested in asking the questions that help build 'partnerships in living well', and an historian of ideas with a bent for reading social systems. The heart of his work is to deconstruct bureaucratic artifice and the mythologies of culture and change, to identify crucial missing conversations and bring them to life, to mentor design thinking, and to teach that wisdom is the heart of leadership.
Mark first read theology, then philosophy and ancient history. His doctoral research was an interdisciplinary study of the intellectual and social contexts and conventions of leadership in the first century and the present. The work has been acclaimed for its scholarly and practical implications.
Mark is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company
Directors and is the author of Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and
Community (InterVarsity Press).
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new chief executive faces the debris of mismanagement and cronyism---poor financials, poor operations, poor quality, poor safety, dispirited people and a lacklustre executive team. Many will have to work harder before they work smarter. Some may have to go. She feels she could do their work better in half the time. What is needed? A little arrogance to shake the place up? A little humility to soften the cynicism? She can't afford this introspection. There are changes to be made.
Why does she struggle? The experts say there is no
tension between people and performance. The cliches tell her that people are
her 'greatest resource', 'highest priority' and the 'key to performance'. Yet
the sheer pressure to perform makes it so easy to shelve 'people matters'. More
tellingly, she refuses to label people as 'resources', 'keys' or 'priorities'.
She senses the incongruence between a view of the world as measurable and manageable,
with people as things to be managed, and a view of the world that ties leadership
to character. Should they obey her because of her rank? Or should she earn their
respect by her character? There is a tension and it has a long history.
This new CEO faces a tangle of ideas and ideals around virtue and leadership that has persisted throughout the history of Western ideas and society. Humility is part of that tangle. We need to appreciate this history to better understand our own challenges.
There is a long tradition of defining leadership by virtues. It was the standard approach of philosophers and orators, widely attested in literature, inscriptions and personal correspondence from classical times, through the Roman Empire and Middle Ages, and down to the present. Today, benefactors and heroes are praised for their virtues on monuments and plaques in our own cities. But the ancients would not approve our list of virtues. They would think us queer, confused and liable to undermine the good order of society. And they would never call humility a virtue for leaders.
In the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome, leadership meant rank---position, not role. Leadership was a right and responsibility attached to a man (overwhelmingly a man) by birth, marriage or adoption. Leadership did not depend on competence, gift, intellect or experience. Its purpose was to maintain the order of a highly stratified society. Good order depended on people staying in the places allotted to them by birth, by fate, by the gods or by personal accomplishment.
Looking back, it might seem that leadership positions were filled as a matter of course by some benign social process, but this was not the case. We need to appreciate the difference between rank and status. Rank was largely fixed by birth, with some chance at change through marriage or adoption (hence we read of great men with sons many years their senior). Status was another matter. Its marks are familiar to us: education, wealth, fame, achievements, friendships, personal appearance, memberships, lifestyle. So, a man might live many steps above or below his rank according to how well he fared in business and in securing the right friends.
Imagine a social network akin to a modern pyramid scheme. This was how the classical world worked---a vast web of patron--client relationships carrying formal obligations and conventions. People worked to have others obligated to themselves, and called upon the conventions of enmity when slighted. This was the social reality behind the sermonising on friendship by the likes of Plato or Seneca. Those within most layers of the pyramid never worked a day in their lives. Work with the hands was unseemly, and this included what we would call administration or management. Those above took a share of what was achieved below.
Strange as it may seem to us, money flowed down as well as up the pyramid. What did patrons stand to gain? Support. Prestige. Influence. The harmony and wellbeing of the polis (the city or state) depended on public works, the dole (in times of famine), religious observances, festivals and games. Relatively few of these were financed by public monies. The money came from benefactors---the men at the top and those keen to impress. Friendship meant reciprocity. There were no free lunches in Athens or Rome. Layer upon layer of freeborn men, and not a few entrepreneurial freedmen, spent the bulk of their days in lobbying and intrigue, subterfuge and toadying. Litigation was rampant.
This is our context for understanding virtue in times past. Virtue was tied to ambition, both of the individual and of the polis. Indeed, the love of ambition was itself considered a virtue. Men and women competed to be known as virtuous. Virtue was a point of comparison, a competitive advantage. The social conventions of leadership were to maintain rank and to allow the trading of status. With this social context in mind, we can better consider the individual virtues as the marks of noble leaders.
Four virtues were supreme in philosophical and popular thought---courage (manliness), justice, self-control (temperance) and wisdom. This book includes only two of these ancient virtues: courage and wisdom. The ancients would never have included the rest of our topics: compassion, humility, humour, passion or integrity. Compassion was a weakness. Humility may possibly have been a virtue for a woman, but never for a man. Humour was unseemly (notwithstanding the many great one-liners and gags of the satirists). Passion disturbed the fine balance of the noble man. Integrity, too, was tied to social convention---people were expected to act not in accordance with their private values (a concept foreign to Greeks and Romans alike), but in keeping with what was expected of their social standing.
Love of ambition was a virtue. Wisdom was the mark of the man who read the political moods and timed well his move up the ladder.
Like leadership, indeed because of leadership, virtue was tied to rank. Only the elite were capable of virtue. Only the elite knew best. If a noble man judged that lying to the masses was in the best interests of the polis, then to lie was virtuous. Even the two virtues we share with the ancients---courage and wisdom---were thoroughly cast in the service of rank and power. Courage equated to manliness---hence the censure on gentleness or compassion.
We still quote the Delphic maxim: 'Know yourself'. We might better translate it: 'Know your place'. Of the more than 250 such moral maxims in wide circulation over almost a millennium, the fab four were these: 'Know yourself'; 'Nothing to excess'; 'A price for commitments'; and 'Pick your time'. We can hear the tones of rank and status. Compassion and humility hinder ambition keep compassion for those who deserve it don't exceed what is socially expected, or there'll be a price to pay so stay in your place while you wait your chance.
Mercy, love or grace never figured as virtues. Neither
did humility. They were blemishes, excesses and liabilities. The gods agreed.
Humility was no more a 'heavenly' virtue than an earthly one. The affairs of
men mirrored the soap operas of the gods. There was nothing divine about humility.
Not, at least, in the Greek and Roman traditions.
The classical virtues---courage, justice, self-control and wisdom---were structured and controlled by rank and status. There are similar lists in Oriental traditions. Confucius is credited with saying: 'Wisdom, benevolence and courage, these three are virtues universally acknowledged in the Empire.' Benevolence is the mark of the gentleman. The idea and social context are coloured by the demands of rank and status, not unlike the world of the Greeks and Romans. As Aristotle said, 'If the gentleman forsakes benevolence, in what way can he make a name for himself?' The good order of society required balance, order, the middle path between extremes. 'Virtue observes the mean relative to us We call it a mean condition as lying between two forms of badness, one being excess and the other deficiency.' Confucius makes a similar point: 'Supreme indeed is the Mean as a moral virtue. It has been rare among the common people for quite a long time.'
Good order required benefactors. Given the dependence of both individuals and the polis upon benefactions, it was in everyone's interests to support the big man. Thus the inscriptions. They were propaganda. They told the sons of the big man and his peers what they must live up to. They told lesser mortals that they were inferior, and rightly so. The virtuous leader was an ideal and a social necessity. For Seneca, the Roman senator and philosopher, the virtuous leader aimed at self-protection. There was little place for humility:
Know, therefore, Serenus, that this perfect man, full of virtues human and divine, can lose nothing The walls which guard the wise man are safe both from flame and assault, they provide no means of entrance---are lofty, impregnable, godlike. Seneca
Our outlook on life, virtue and leadership might be much closer to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans had it not been for the incursion of another tradition---the scandalous world view of a breakaway sect of an irascible people in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. Two figures stand at the head of this social and intellectual incursion: Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus.
Martin Luther King Jr, like Gandhi before him, built his platform of non-violent leadership and transformation on the words of Jesus to an audience open to armed revolution: 'Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth' (Matthew 5:5).
The note of social reversal pervades the teachings
of Jesus: 'Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself
will be exalted' (Matthew 23:12).
At the heart of the Christian explanation of the story of Jesus is the theme of self-sacrifice and humility. As Paul of Tarsus explained the story, Jesus 'humbled himself and became obedient to death' for the benefit of those unable to reciprocate. 'Though he was rich yet for your sake he became poor so that you through his poverty might become rich' (Philippians 2:7--8; 2 Corinthians 8:9). It is a vision that has fired the imagination of artists, writers and leaders over many centuries. Yet it derives from a land, a life and an event deemed ignoble and scandalous by Greeks and Romans.
Paul of Tarsus was a Jewish lawyer and leader, most likely trained both in Jewish and Graeco-Roman law, a fierce opponent of the earliest Christians, and a supporter of terrorism against the occupying Romans. Yet he was soon to become the most articulate advocate of the Christian 'good news'---a term laden with political connotations. ('Good news' was used in announcing the birth of the emperor's son and military victories. Likewise the slogan 'Jesus is Lord' was an affront to 'Caesar is Lord'.) Paul became the architect of what is arguably the most radical reshaping of human relations in Western, if not human, history.
Given what we have seen of the social conventions of Paul's day, consider his innovations and departures from tradition. Palestine had been deeply Hellenised (influenced by Greek culture) for over a century. Jews lived throughout the Roman Empire, many holding positions of high rank. Paul himself was a Roman citizen, an honour passed from forebears who had merited high standing. Paul could play both worlds: zealous Jewish agitator and urbane Hellenised professional. So what would an audience make of his pronouncement that 'there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:28)? Or when he advised others to 'do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves' (Philippians 2:3)? Or to 'not think of yourself more highly than you ought', but to 'associate with people of low position' (Romans 12:3, 16)? Today we prize adaptability. In Paul's world it was unseemly. Grace, he said, drove him to adapt to those he sought to serve. 'I have become all things to all men' (Corinthians 9:19, 22). To most he was unstable and inconstant.
Humility was not an idea to Paul. He would not call it a virtue. It was a commitment, a way of life thrust upon him by his identification with Jesus of Nazareth that he felt compelled to model and to justify. It fed upon his understanding of grace as the new shape of divine and human relations. He took the paramount political metaphor, the body---commonly used to prove the superiority of the head---and used it to teach the equality of all parts and the value of the lowliest. He coined the idea of gifts: that every member was divinely endowed with gifts for service, not personal status. He wrote directly to women, slaves and children, an unparalleled break with convention. He refused to work the crowd with oratory. He declined patronage. He worked with his hands.
If Paul broke with the classical spirit on the virtues, he was no less radical on leadership. He left no room for personal power or office. In a world where leadership was rank, Paul was anti-leadership. This is difficult for us to grasp. He exerted profound influence. He founded communities. He taught and modelled a re-ordering of social relations that would eventually reshape the social order. We are accustomed to calling all of this leadership. Yet he rejected the term. He described himself with simple, demeaning metaphors like slave, servant or gardener. He reframed friendship away from personal gain. In time, the new language (servant) came to delineate rank (minister). But not for Paul.
The intellectual and cultural richness of Western society derives from the tensions, the contradictions, the antagonism and plagiarism between its two great traditions---the classical worlds of the Greeks and Romans, and the Christian world views that grew from Jewish soil. A rich synthesis, made richer by tension and contradiction, was hammered out over four centuries. This conflation has shaped our expectations of leadership. We seek a man or woman of strong intellect and vision to build the polis. We want leaders made worthy by grace and humility, not rank. We desire leadership that upholds the ideals of democracy, but democracy does not mean to us what it meant to the ancient Greeks. We desire virtues of compassion and humility in our leaders, but the early sources of these qualities are found in New Testament letters hostile to leadership.
Westerners live in multicultural societies that bear witness to two traditions above all others. We may not have read Aristotle, nor hold Christian convictions, but we have inherited their richly contradictory notions and practices of virtue, leadership and humility. In this creative tension we seek an understanding and practice of humility for own times.
The Concise Macquarie Dictionary defines humility as:
Humility: The quality of being humble; (a) modest sense of one's own significance.
It is akin to modesty, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as that disposition of 'a moderate or humble estimate of one's merits, importance, etc.; free from vanity, egotism, boastfulness, or great pretensions free from ostentation or showy extravagance'.
In colloquial speech, Australians talk about 'eating
humble pie', 'eating crow', 'not getting above oneself', 'not being up yourself',
being 'happy to take a back seat' and 'not putting yourself forward'. We refer
affectionately or sympathetically to unpretentious (and usually struggling or
unsuccessful) people as 'battlers' or 'underdogs'. A man, sometimes a woman,
may refer to his or her spouse as 'the better half'. Our distaste for arrogance
and unreasonable pride is captured in sayings like 'she doesn't suffer fools',
'he's up himself', 'she's got a healthy ego', 'he's got tickets on himself'
and 'she thinks she's the ants pants'. We don't like those who 'big note' themselves.
Somehow we have maintained this preference for humility and distaste for arrogance
in the face of the rampant self-promotion of marketing and media spin-doctors.
'Humility,' Rabbi Jonathan Sacks maintains, 'is the orphaned virtue of our age':
Its demise came with the threatening anonymity of mass culture alongside the loss of neighborhoods and congregations. Today's creed is, 'If you've got it, flaunt it.' Humility, being humble, didn't stand a chance. What a shame True virtue never needs to advertise itself. That is why I find the aggressive packaging of personality so sad. It speaks of loneliness, the profound, endemic loneliness of a world without relationships of fidelity and trust.
Is humility weakness? Executives have said to me: 'If I practice humility it will be interpreted as weakness. Surely it is a weakness if I miss out on some reward or recognition by putting others forward.' If by 'strength' we mean putting ourselves in a stronger position for ourselves---in other words, personal gain---then, yes, humility is weakness. Indeed, this is why humility did not appear as a virtue, human or divine, in ancient Greece and Rome. Humility will be weakness in any social system that values status over substance, personality over character, and performance over depth. The path of humility is social weakness. It is to refuse the games and cop the possible flack. So is humility just for 'mugs', for those who aren't smart enough to play the game?
I think it depends first on our view of strength, and second on the size of our world. To lead humbly is to accept rank but to use it on behalf of others. To lead humbly is to refuse status. This is strength---strength of character. This is the strength of one whose world is bigger than his or her ego. This is the strength that enables a leader to pursue a noble dream in a noble way.
I have to confess I'm no fan of management books. But recently I read one that had me cheering. Jim Collins's Good to Great is the sequel to the well-known Built to Last, which he co-authored with Jerry Porras. In Built to Last, Collins and Porras wanted to know which corporations had truly lasted. They made a study of corporations that passed a battery of intimidating tests of reputation, product quality, market share and financial performance, and had done so for over 50 years. In Good to Great, Jim Collins and his team pursued a different question: 'Can a good company become a great company, and if so, how?' The team began with 1435 companies, gradually developing robust and exacting criteria and narrowing the list to 11 companies they believed were truly great and 11 direct comparison companies who had achieved success but never greatness.
Well into the research, the team began to report that leaders of the 11 great companies showed different traits to their counterparts. What is crucial here is that Collins did not set out to create a new theory of leadership. He explicitly warned the team against this.
I gave the research team explicit instructions to downplay the role of top executives so that we would avoid the simplistic 'credit the teacher' or 'blame the leader' thinking I kept insisting 'Ignore the executives'. But the research team kept pushing back, 'No! There is something consistently unusual about them. We can't ignore them' Finally, the data won.
The data showed an uncanny inverse image between the leaders of the great companies and their direct comparisons (see table 1.1).
Table 1.1: The traits of great leaders
|The comparison leaders||The great leaders|
|Mostly outside appointments||Almost all long-term employees|
|Attained high public profile. Turnaround of the company widely featured in the media.||Relatively unknown. Turnaround stories had comparatively modest publicity.|
|Explained success by looking in the mirror.||Explained success by looking out of the window.|
|Explained failure and setbacks by looking out of the window.||Explained failure and setbacks by looking in the mirror.|
|Gung-ho enthusiasts.||Often modest and adverse to attention.|
|Ambitious for their own careers.||Ambitious for what they were building.|
Two words summed up what Collins and his team believed they had seen in these leaders of truly great companies: humility + will.
The argument for humility will mean little to those whose focus is on the short term and their own advancement. If the daily movement of the share price is our guide to significance, then we shouldn't bother with humility. Arrogance, bravado and a certain callousness in the use of people will get the results---for as long as they last. By comparison, building what lasts requires faith, persistence, resolve and grace. Humility opens us to a world big enough to warrant perseverance and big enough to learn from. Humility is only for those who wish to build something great, something that lasts, something noble. Think of the recent corporate collapses both in Australia and the USA. Think of the leaders. Humility?
Do the big names need humility or will it just get in the road? It comes down to the breadth and depth of our view of life. What seems great may in truth be small; what seems small may be great. To quote the good Rabbi once more:
What a glorious revelation humility is of the human spirit True humility is one of the most life-enhancing of all virtues. It does not mean undervaluing or underestimating yourself. It means valuing other people. It signals an openness to life's grandeur and the willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it False humility is the pretence that one is small. True humility is the consciousness of standing in the presence of greatness. Jonathon Sacks
Cynicism has no comeback to humility. It will mock but it has no answer. Cynicism is a sickly, small view of the world. A world where people do not change. Where nothing noble can be done. Where no-one can act for the good of others. Where there is no joy in learning and making. Sacks is right: 'Humility opens us to the world.'
Humility is the heart of an inquiring mind. The world is big. I am big. No point denying it. No bigger than others, and no smaller. Just big and different. Life holds infinite mysteries and joys. I can learn them only if I don't think I already know. Only if I don't think you can't teach me.
Humility is a door to wisdom---to reading ourselves, others and the world around us with insight. The wise leader prizes the gaining of wisdom above all else. In the words of an ancient chief executive: 'Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding' (Proverbs 4:7). Those who would learn to lead wisely must receive and give instruction humbly:
Yu, shall I tell you what it is to know? To say
you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge.
The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice A mocker resents correction; he will not consult the wise He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. Proverbs 12:15; 15:12, 31
There is paradox in what we are saying about humility. To be humble is to recognise that we are both small and big. Small in the face of a big world offering a large life. Big in the face of the petty fears and self-doubt that may rob us of the joy of life. Small as those who have much to learn. Big as those who can learn far more than we can imagine. Small as a child helpless in his mother's arms. Big as a child who brings a father to his knees. If we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made, then humility is our amen.
In the film Dead Poets' Society, the Robin Williams character, English teacher John Keating, takes his new charges into the school foyer for their first class. He has them read a poem that begins: 'Gather ye rose buds while ye may, while time is still a-flying'. 'The Latin term for this sentiment,' he explains, 'is carpe diem seize the day!' Drawing them close to photos of long dead graduates, he breathes the paradox: 'They are food for worms lads Make your lives extraordinary.' You will die; so live. This is no simple 'make the most of what you have' speech. Later he has them rip out the introduction in their textbooks ---not just because it gives the wrong idea of poetry, but because it offers a false orientation to life, to which poetry is a door, a key, a window.
The character John Keating seizes on the extraordinary power of death to orient the heart and mind. It is a truth found in many traditions:
One who is a Samurai must before all things keep constantly before him, by day and by night, the fact that he must die. Yåuzan Daidåoji
Drawing on the work of the German philosopher Heidegger, William Barrett wrote:
Men die. This happens every day in the world. Death is a public event in the world, of which we take notice in obituaries But so long as death remains a fact outside ourselves, we have not yet passed from the proposition 'Men die' to the proposition 'I am to die.' The authentic meaning of death---'I am to die'---is not an external and public fact within the world, but an internal possibility of my own Being Only by taking my death into myself, according to Heidegger, does an authentic existence become possible for me Though terrifying, the taking of death into ourselves is also liberating. It frees us from servitude to the petty cares that threaten to engulf our daily life and thereby opens us to the essential projects by which we can make our lives personally and significantly our own.
Humility is a commitment to life when the certainty of our own death loses its fear. We will die. So what lasts? What is it to live meaningfully? What gives meaning to our lives? Memories. Relationships. The joy of intimacy and the meeting of minds. Making. The bringing to existence of what would not have been except for us. The memories of what we have created with, and on behalf of, others.
It is crucial that we not see humility as synonymous with being shy, withdrawn, quiet, self-effacing or self-critical. There is nothing wrong with any of these behaviours. But they must not define humility. Humility is as much at home among the gregarious, ambitious and confident. Humility is not being negative about ourselves. Negativity poisons humility with self-pity and self-centredness. In my experience many people struggle with this very point. Can I value my abilities and myself without becoming arrogant?
A couple of years ago I was leading a small design team for a client organisation and had taken them away to workshop the skills of strategic conversation and design. As part of the workshop, I had the team complete an exercise individually and then meet up with a partner to talk through the insights they gained. The exercise works from a simple analogy. In many ball sports we speak of sweet spots---that place on the club, bat or racquet from which the ball flies strong and true. By extension we speak of those moments when everything comes together beautifully. We all experience sweet spots and not just in sports. I asked the team to find a quiet place and map the sweet spots in their lives. The moments when they knew they were doing what they loved, what they were good at, and what was of value to others. Some moments contain only one of these; some contain all.
Several team members were rising stars and obvious choices. One was not. Her supervisors had been taken aback when I had said I wanted to invite her onto the team. She had limited education, no professional qualifications, and was in a low-paid position. But I had witnessed her insight, integrity and earthy manner of getting to the heart of things. Unknown to the rest of us, she found the exercise paralysing. 'I have never stopped to think positively about myself,' she told us later. 'I couldn't think of anything.' Her partner for the exercise was a gentle man of great depth. When he found her she was feeling blank and stupid. An hour later she had told him story after story of remarkable personal growth through difficulties, employment initiatives, small business ventures and community involvements. We were stunned by the tapestry he had mapped of her stories and the emerging portrait of her character and competence. Late that night we spoke at length. She was startled by glimpses of unforseen meaning and possibility.
A few months later she participated with senior leaders from many organisations in a development workshop run by a colleague of mine. I dropped by on the last day, quietly taking my place at the rear of the room. With great skill she was leading a group of senior executives to new clarity about a pressing problem. The original workshop was a watershed for her. She now saw herself as competent and successful, with skills far beyond her position. Did this confidence kill humility? On the contrary. What she displayed before was more negativity than humility. Her sense of unworthiness capped her capacity to learn and to draw out the insights of others. Her joy now is to use her gifts to help others find uncommon clarity. That is humility.
So can humility be taught? By a program, no. By life, yes. At the end of a Good to Great seminar, Jim Collins was asked if a person can learn to be a great leader, a leader characterised by humility and will---what he calls a 'level 5 leader'. His response? 'A "Ten-Step List to Level 5" would trivialise the concept.'
No program teaches greatness. How do I learn patience? How do I learn to love? How do I learn humility? By pain and joy and being open to uncertainty. More than programs, we need conversations that provoke us to:
These 19 points are not the answer to everything. On another day I may have come up with 12 or 27. Every reader can think of their own points to add. We are simply reflecting on life as we know it. Life---where we stuff up, succeed and sometimes learn.
I learned three wonderful little aphorisms from my father that have come back to me time and again. I do not know their original sources. Most likely you have heard them before:
Take care in little things.
Faithful in little things, faithful in big things.
Leave things/people better than you found them.
He was trying to inculcate in me a sense of the beauty in humility and love. No task or person is insignificant. The measure of character is what we do when no-one is watching; when the task is too small for others to notice. If we want to be given large responsibilities and opportunities, then we must earn the privilege through discharging smaller responsibilities well. The test comes when we are accustomed to bigger things. What happens when we are asked to do something small? Many of us were taught to leave things better than we found them, like filling up with petrol before we return our friend's car. My dad tried to teach me that this was as true of people as cars. There's a knife-edge there. To think of 'leaving people better than we found them' can smack of patronising and claiming to know better. That wasn't his intent. It was simply the thoughtfulness to speak a word that might encourage, a word that might open the door to a bigger world for others.
Humility needs to be seen in relationship to our other virtues and qualities. It is inward looking in a way most other virtues are not. Humility is a stance I take towards myself before it is a stance I take towards others. With the possible exception of integrity, the other virtues are mostly a stance we take towards others and the wider challenges of life. I'm not saying that humility is the most important. The virtues need to be seen as interdependent. Each needs to be seen in the light of the others. Humility without compassion, courage or integrity is hollow. Without humility the other virtues may become parodies:
In On Equilibrium, John Ralston Saul makes a case for the combined use of six universal qualities as our primary means of ensuring the good of the polis, what Aristotle called the 'partnership in living well'. We might argue over his distinctions between virtues, values, qualities and characteristics. We may argue over his final choice of the six qualities. What he offers, though, is a rich view of what is common to us all, but not always common in use. Each quality is made richer and surer by humility:
Clearly, humility does not exist in isolation from the other virtues, qualities and arts of leadership. When it comes to leadership there is perhaps one characteristic manner of being that stands out as the natural twin of humility. Humility and nobility. Humility with nobility:
Honor is not the same as public acclaim. Virtue is not determined in moments of public attention to our behavior. Courage, devotion, compassion, humility---all the noble human qualities---are not practiced in pursuit of public approval. They are means to much nobler ends. And they are ends in themselves. Senator John McCain
According to the Concise Macquarie Dictionary, to be noble is to be:
Admirable in dignity of conception, or in manner of expression, execution, or composition; imposing in appearance; stately; magnificent; of an admirably high quality.
We are not talking about nobility in the sense of ranks made elite by birth or decree, but of nobility of purpose, and of a personal bearing that befits that purpose.
Humility with nobility is easier to see than to define.
The telemovie Gettysburg depicts the devastating American Civil War battle near the town of the same name. It is based on the well-researched Pulitzer Prize novel, Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The story is as follows: It is 1863. Colonel Joshua 'Lawrence' Chamberlain has taken command of the 20th Maine regiment, now reduced from 1000 men to less than 300, and 120 men of the now disbanded 2nd Maine are arriving under guard. They have refused to fight. Most soldiers enlisted for two years. These men signed for three years but thought they signed to fight with the 2nd Maine only. When the regiment disbanded, they believed they were free to go home but found they had to serve one more year. They mutinied. Chamberlain is 'authorised to shoot any man who will not do his duty'. A spiteful young captain has marched them at bayonet point and without food in order to 'break them'. When dismissed, he seeks to humiliate them one last time.
Chamberlain dismisses the guards. He provides food and shelter. In a brief exchange, Private Buckland identifies himself as the elected spokesman for the mutineers. Chamberlain invites Buckland to his shelter, where he recounts the men's grievances. A courier announces that the 20th Maine must move immediately to the forward position. Buckland leaves, and after a delay, Chamberlain gathers the mutineers to address them.
He begins awkwardly, explaining that his new orders give them little time to talk. He comes clean: 'They tell me I can shoot you. Well, we both know I won't do that. Maybe someone else will, but I won't.' His passion grows as he speaks. They enlisted to fight for many reasons; mostly, they thought it was the right thing to do. He sees a noble purpose: 'We are an army out to set other men free.' He is heavy with war: 'We have all seen men die.' Climaxing his impromptu speech, the former professor of rhetoric becomes self-conscious and awkward: 'Sorry, I didn't mean to preach.' He offers muskets to any man who will fight and gives his word that 'nothing more will be said by anyone anywhere'. For those who refuse to fight he promises to see they get a fair trial. He pauses: 'Gentlemen, I think if we lose this fight, we lose the war. So if you choose to join us, I'll be personally very grateful.'
Chamberlain's humility and nobility impresses and inspires. He will not tolerate the captain's disrespect, neither of himself nor of the mutineers. His first words are to dismiss the guards. He looks to the mutineers' wellbeing. Buckland is taken aback, first by Chamberlain's invitation, then by the offer of his hand, coffee and a seat. Chamberlain sits quietly while Buckland denounces 'these officers, these gentlemen these lame-brained bastards from West Point'. (Australian soldiers suffering under incompetent English officers at Gallipoli in World War One would have understood.) Chamberlain had not been to West Point. He was a professor. He does not distance himself, nor take exception, but quietly reads the courage in the awkward private.
Walking to address the men he is unsure of what to do. He stands below them and makes no attempt to call them to formal order. He acknowledges Buckland. He believes he owes the men a reason. He feels strongly about the war, notwithstanding the uncertainty and confusion that will grow within him later. He sums up in story where they find themselves. It is truthful and unpromising. He paints a picture of what they are fighting for. He is clear about their choices. He cannot make them fight. He won't shoot them. They will be coming. He will get them a fair trial. He neither deceives nor withholds knowledge that is rightfully theirs. His apologises for 'preaching'. He calls them 'gentlemen'.
Humility and nobility. One man among others. Aware of his relative inexperience. Courteous and dignifying. Cutting vitriol short. Holding his position with honour. Willing to listen and learn. Giving a man a chance to prove himself. Looking beyond the outburst. No wounded pride. He speaks without affectation. He respects their anger and grief. He offers only what he can. He attempts to lift their hearts and minds to what he believes is a noble purpose.
Of the 120 mutineers, 114 men chose that day to fight. Days later he appealed again to the final six, three of whom fought. One may have saved Chamberlain's life. The three remaining mutineers received a fair trial. No action was taken against the others. Chamberlain's actions at Gettysburg turned the battle. He was gravely wounded in later battles, and promoted to Major General. Chosen by General Grant to receive the Southern surrender at Appomattox, he stunned both sides by calling his troops to salute the defeated Southerners. He was elected Governor of Maine four times, and finally succumbed to his war wounds in 1914. His men held him in awe and devotion to the end.
Closer to home I think of Captain Edward 'Weary' Dunlop and his indefatigable labours as the senior medical officer and sometimes commanding officer among Australian prisoners of war in Burma during the Second World War. Weary is remembered for many things. His brilliant surgical innovations first performed with bamboo and other improvised instruments and aids; his fearless confrontation and gentle wooing of the Japanese guards and officers to win relief and supplies for his men wherever possible; his distaste at the vengeful treatment of many former guards after the Japanese surrender; and his tireless work for all returned POWs and their families until his death.
When he resumed his surgical career in Australia, some peers were jealous of the goodwill shown to him. They sought to taint his efforts on behalf of others with the smear of mixed motives. His biographer, Sue Ebury, recounts Weary's own explanation:
Hintok 1943 is the key, when he read the Sermon on the Mount in the midst of 'all the misery, the squalor, the grey rain and slush and sick and dying people'. He had never felt more useful. It was then that he was possessed by a 'marvellous, almost religious experience a sort of happiness. I understood what it would mean to love your neighbour more than yourself.'
Evelyn Crawford lived a truly 'remarkable life'. She didn't know it at the time, but a noble dream began to form in the heart and mind of this young Aboriginal girl from her earliest days growing up in far north-western New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland in the 1930s. A vision of life made better by wisdom and education wherever it could be found. Her grandparents bequeathed to her a deep appreciation for the wisdom and vast knowledge of those who live close to the land. She learned to see beyond. She learned to master complex languages and custom. From her first school teacher she learned that education was a door to a different life. At the white man's tip outside of town she found labels and discarded papers holding precious words to learn to read and write. At the mission school she encountered for the first time the prejudice and ignorance that only deepened her resolve to bring the kinds of learning that would reconcile people. As she relates in her autobiography, Over My Tracks: A Remarkable Life, her dream took forty years to begin to realise:
We had no idea what our little group, three Aboriginal women and one white man, would become in later years. We were just thinking---at least I was---from one week to another. It wasn't anything pre-planned. We never said, 'If we get this done, we can surely get that done.' We just went ahead very, very slowly We knew that if we wanted to be in the education system, and get other people to come forward and do the same thing after us, we'd have to work bloody hard to git in, and to be accepted, because we started from scratch. The challenge was there for me, an old woman almost fifty, and I never, ever walked away from a challenge in my life.
With several friends and colleagues, Evelyn Crawford was at the forefront of establishing a place for Aboriginal teachers' aides in public schools; technical college classes for Aborigines; an Aboriginal liaison department in the New South Wales public education system; and, finally, full teacher training and benefits for Aboriginal teachers. Through it all she tended to play down her own capabilities and ignored her own rights while working tirelessly to applaud the talents and protect the rights of others. She summed up herself well: 'Yes, we were the gate openers, and I'm proud of the ones that come through that gate.' Nobility with humility.
One hundred remarkable young adults had gathered in the town of Launceston to 'pass through a gate' at the Future Leaders Forum sponsored by the Foundation for Young Australians. One hundred chosen from hundreds of nominations from around Australia. For six days they listened to politicians, chief executives, economists, environmentalists, activists, academics and social researchers addressing the question: 'What will you face as a leader in this country in the next 10 or 20 years?' Between sessions they worked in small groups, framing their own pictures of the society they hoped to leave to their children. On the last day I met with them to address the question: 'What will it take for you to make a difference?'
This was an impressive group. The most diverse I have ever seen in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, religion, education, work, socio-economic background, interests and achievements. Many already had a significant public profile. I began my session with two questions.
'After six heady days,' I asked, 'how many of you are awed at your new colleagues and think to yourself, "What am I doing here?"' Almost every hand went up. 'And how many of you,' I continued, 'have parents, siblings, friends and colleagues who can't quite fathom why you would spend a week in a conference like this, and you struggle to know how to tell them because you feel somewhat awkward, even embarrassed, to talk about it?' Once again, almost every hand went up.
Most of these 100 highly talented, motivated, articulate, high achieving, highly regarded young Australian adults indicated that they felt anxious and awkward about saying they wanted to make a difference. They didn't lack drive, passion or vision. There were some very healthy egos. What they felt was anticipation. They anticipated a disposition among Australians that stands ready to cut down those who stand tall.
In his book, Turning Point: Australians Choosing their Future, Hugh Mackay comments on the so-called tall poppy syndrome:
It's not the tall poppies we slash: it's the one's that act tall. So, to the list of other desirable attributes in a leader---strength, integrity, passion---we must add the important modifier: humility. With humility, strength can be expressed with dignity and grace; integrity can be assumed, without anyone's attention being drawn to it; passion can be focused on the task at hand, without spilling over into lust for power. (Some older Australians recall Curtin and Chifley---as some older Americans recall Truman---as leaders who displayed true humility.)
Australians do hate arrogance. But passion is not arrogance. Nobility is not elitism. Humility is not self-deprecation. Perhaps we have little deep understanding of humility or nobility. We seem embarrassed by passion; awkward about a truly noble cause. Thus we cut down those who have a dream and dare to realise it.
We do need to check arrogance. But we also need to encourage the strength of character, the robustness, to care deeply and to commit to making a difference. Humility does not negate passion, commitment or confidence; it makes them credible.
A few months after my Tasmanian experience, the Foundation for Young Australians invited me to speak with 100 teenagers chosen from public and private schools across Australia. The Centenary of Federation was in 2001 and these young people were our Federation Envoys, telling the story of Federation in their schools and communities. They had gathered at Parliament House, Canberra, for a final debrief. Deciding against a formal speech, we found a large corridor where the young people sat on the ground leaving a path for me to wander as I spoke with them. As with their older counterparts, I began by asking them questions.
'When you applied a year ago to become a Federation Envoy,' I asked, 'did you think then that you were able to make a difference in any of the serious issues that face your communities?' Almost all were negative. 'What about now?' I inquired. 'Do you think you can make a difference now?' Almost all were positive. 'So what has happened for you in this past year?' I added. They began to tell stories. Initiatives they had taken. Conversations that had changed them and changed others. A growing confidence. Some demurred. The exchange was fascinating.
I passed around copies of a piece of writing by Marianne Williamson, which was quoted by Nelson Mandela in his 1994 speech on being inaugurated as President of South Africa:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking, so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us, it's in everyone and, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people the permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
It is not humility that makes us shrink back. It is not arrogant to commit to being as brilliant, as big, as glorious, as unafraid as possible. With Williamson's poem, and his own life, Mandela moved South Africa and us all to grasp humility with nobility. Whatever the man's flaws, he modelled it for us. The young people grasped this. They spoke of the fear that holds them back. They spoke of peers who tried to hold them back. They voiced the desire to hang on to desire---the desire to make a difference.
Recall our new CEO. She ponders this call to lead wisely. It resonates with her common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory and reason. People are not resources to be managed. She will not manage her way to building what is truly great. Instead, she and many others must lead. The polis of Aristotle's Politics, the 'partnership in living well', confronts her with the call to virtue. Courage, justice, self-control and wisdom. Each makes their claim upon her. But she hears another call too. To grace and compassion and humility. Rank is but a context status has no place the conservatism of Aristotle and Seneca is unsettled by the radicalism of Jesus and Paul. She seeks humility with nobility. Singleness of purpose to build what truly matters. Clarity to focus on one or two crucial challenges. Deep respect for all. Openness to learn from everyone. The channelling of ego into what they will build.
Looking out the window at a neighbouring construction site, an image forms in her mind. Aristotle wanted the leaders of Athens to build a 'partnership in living well'. Paul inverted contemporary political metaphors to teach the equality and dignity of all. Jim Collins seeks to understand the minds and hearts of those who build what is truly great. The image she sees comes into focus.
Leading is like bricklaying. We have a picture of the polis in our minds. What emerges is close but never exact. We learn to set a string line and work the level. But it's the eye that grows to know what's plumb and true---the arts of leadership.
Then there's the mortar, the 'mud'. The qualities. The virtues. Humility. Nobility. Courage. Compassion. Integrity. All of them. Bricklayers don't skimp on mud. They don't measure it out. They throw it on. Extravagantly. And so it is with leaders who build what is great.
Everyone has dignity. We call some kids gifted and talented. But they're all gifted and talented. Everyone. Each person at each desk, building site, office, machine, headset and driver's wheel is gifted and talented. Some see it. Some don't. What could we create if we made the space for people to bring the very best of what they have to all that they do? Arrogance, rudeness and indifference make the world smaller.
Humility with nobility opens up a bigger life. Ambition directed into what we build. A willingness to learn from all. An idea that inspires and is open to question. A willingness to do little things well. Bringing dignity to a role without superiority. Graciousness when shown we are wrong. Making sure praise goes to those who deserve it.
I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men. Lao-Tzu
Humility is the mud with which we build partnerships in living well. Be extravagant with it.
Here are seven sayings that urge me to live beyond my pettiness. Some are old friends; some new. They offer no program. No easy answers. They are worthy of deep reflection.
Aristotle, Politics, Penguin, London, 1962.
Aristotle's teacher, Plato, wrote the Republic to argue for the supremacy of a city in which all know their place and act exactly according to it. Aristotle believed diversity made the city vibrant and sustainable. Politics makes his case.
Jim Collins, Good to Great, Harper Business,
New York, 2001.
At last, a management book that looks beyond the hype. A great read grounded in careful research. (Someone needs to do the same work on Australian corporations.) Don't let the 'level 5 leader' tag distract you from the book's good sense.
Evelyn Crawford, Over My Tracks: A Remarkable Life,
Penguin, Melbourne, 1993.
A wonderful story. My work with public education underscores to me the debt we owe those who teach our children well and lead our schools wisely. Evelyn Crawford was a pioneer for all kids.
David Day, John Curtin: A Life, Harper Collins,
Great read about a fascinating life. Curtin was a reluctant and unlikely Prime Minister who rose to the occasion when Australia needed him most during the Second World War.
Sue Ebury, Weary: The Life of Sir Edward Dunlop,
Penguin, Melbourne, 1995.
Why has no-one made a film from this book? One of the great stories of selflessness for a noble cause in the most appalling circumstances.
Lao Tzu, Tao de Ching, Penguin, London, 1963.
The classic enigmatic Eastern sage. Don't look for systems, processes or easy answers. His cryptic sayings are tantalisingly insightful (and occasionally slightly batty).
Tom Morris, True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence,
Berkeley, New York, 1995.
Like no other success book. Just what you'd expect from an undergraduate business student and rock guitarist who became America's favourite philosophy professor and the Disney spokesman for Winnie the Pooh. Full of great good sense.
Paul's Letter to the Philippians, New Testament,
Contains many of the key sayings, examples and arguments that began the subversion of the classical assumption of virtue and leadership as tied to rank. Startling self-awareness.
Plutarch, 'How to tell a flatterer from a friend,'
in Essays, Penguin, London, 1992.
The best of the tender classical conscience about flattery and self-praise. Lays the ground on which subsequent Christian thinkers found room for a synthesis of the two world views.
John Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium, Penguin,
A significant book. Argues that the good of society requires the integrated use of the six common human qualities: common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory and reason. Stinging and generally well-targeted critique of managerialism.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Humility, An Endangered Virtue,
Delightful read. This has to redeem at least a few thousand worthless articles on the Net.
Mark Strom, 'Character, wisdom, and being a leader,'
in Foundation for Young Australians Conference Papers, Launceston, 2001.
Provides an introduction to my understanding of story, design, promise and grace as the arts of leading wisely.