‘Humility’ is a widely understood word. It’s not one of those words people will pause to look up the meaning for. Generally, people love the thought of humility. It’s one of those ‘good’ values we strive for; one we admire. Yes, most people feel they know what it means to be humble.

Demonstrating it however, is a whole other matter.

For instance, a person distracted by their Blackberry or cell phone, unable to focus on the conversation you are having with them face to face, is so filled with self-importance, they cannot possibly claim to be humble. Humility is the lack of self-importance, is it not?

The person who impatiently shakes their head as you explain a new idea you are presenting to them, finally breaking in to say, “We’ve tried that here before, and it just doesn’t work,” cannot claim to be humble. Humility is being open-minded, and realizing that no matter how long you’ve been around, you couldn’t possibly have experienced everything there is to experience, right?

Then there’s the person who just got a promotion, and the first purchase order they write is for new business cards, despite the fact that the have a box left of the old ones with the same mailing address, email address, and phone numbers. Never mind that they mostly attach v-cards electronically these days, and that’s why the old box lasted so long.

In new product development, there’s a discussion going on about complaints customers have with existing products, and someone says, “Well, they wouldn’t have that problem if they followed the instructions in the first place.” That can’t possibly be humility, when we stop listening to what our customers are asking for, and assume they just don’t ‘get it,’ right?

If some of our common behaviors in workplaces are an indication, we don’t understand humility very much at all.

Those who are humble, feel the rest of us are pretty interesting. Those with humility have a genuine desire to discover what other people can offer. They are intrigued by how others think, and how others feel differently from them.

We can be confident, and we can be self-assured; humility does not call for us to be meek, or consider ourselves lower in stature. We do not require less of ourselves, and we take our role and our responsibilities seriously. However what humility does, is create a sort of receptacle of acceptance in us, so we are open to being filled with the knowledge and opinions of others. Humility is a kind of hunger for more abundance. The greater our humility, the greater our fascination with the world around us, and the more we learn.

To have inner drive, to want to be successful is a good thing. I do believe that part of humility is believing in those possibilities which presently may be larger than life for you. However humility also speaks to the demeanor and attitude we must have as we seek our success, so that our inner drive and desires are in balance with our composure, and our conduct with those who interact with us. After all, they could factor into being a big part of the success we eventually will enjoy.

One of the best definitions I have ever heard for humility came from one of my employees when I was still in corporate management. Short and sweet, it’s one I have never forgotten. He was talking about a new supervisor we’d recently hired into the department, explaining how she listened to everyone on staff in such a great way. Like they mattered. Like everything they did and said mattered. He had said she seemed very humble to him because as she demonstrated it, “Humility is an act of courtesy.”

I like that.

We were not put on this earth alone. Frankly, others have to live with us, and our own practice of open-minded, fill-me-up humility can make it a much more interesting and pleasant experience for all of us.


Rosa Say is the author of Managing with Aloha, Bringing Hawaii’s Universal Values to the Art of Business and the Talking Story blog. She is the founder and head coach of Say Leadership Coaching, a company dedicated to bringing nobility to the working arts of management and leadership.For more of her ideas, click to her Thursday columns in the archives; you’ll find her index in the left column of www.ManagingWithAloha.com

Rosa’s Previous Thursday Column was: What are the Rules? Hopefully, none.

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