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Early in my career – young and naive, but determined – I found myself in disagreement on a matter of policy and principle with my boss and appealed to the board chair, the ultimate authority. He listened and then asked me to sit in the lobby outside his office while he made a call. About 15 minutes later he came out, shook my hand, thanked me for coming, and said, “Always be humble in victory.”

The words stuck with me and as I ponder them now I can see three dimensions in which they apply. The first is the exact words: In victory of any kind we need to be humble. Muhammad Ali seemed to miss that message, whether to boost his own confidence, inject misgivings into his opponents, or simply out of his huge ego, and these days there are some trash-talking athletes not to mention certain politicians. But we have uplifting examples, in all fields, of modest winners and should follow their example because victory can go to your head and later come back to trip you up.

Individually, humility can be hard to find particularly as one rises the ladder in an organization. “Leader humility, creating a gracious space for others' dignity, is a game changer,” Marilyn Gist, a consultant and professor emerita at Seattle University, writes in The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility. “It is not the only thing leaders need to do, but it is the critical foundation for working well with others.”

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I usually bristle at advice on how to be humble – as with advice on being authentic – since it seems like those are internal traits one has or doesn’t. But there can be parts of us that are humble and parts that are arrogant, perhaps even intertwined with inadequacy and self-doubt. So maybe it’s a case of finding the humility within ourselves that co-exists with non-humility.

Or maybe it’s a case of looking at others differently and instead of dismissing them and finding fault – the operating standard in many workplaces and situations – appreciating their worth. Prof. Gist worked extensively with Alan Mulally when he was CEO of Boeing where, as part of his “everyone is included approach,” he insisted his team “respect, listen, help and appreciate each other.” She says Mr. Mulally’s style “showed humility because it acknowledged that others make contributions and that it takes everyone giving their best to optimize an organization’s results.”

Sometimes our principles can lead us to leave humility behind, as we fight for a point of view we know to be superior, like in that early career situation I mentioned. To others, we may seem immodest or egotistical but to our mind it’s not about ourselves – it’s about the principle. The reality is too often it may well be ego wrapped in principle. Yes, be humble in victory but maybe also be willing to let the matter go so it doesn’t lead to battle. Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith lists “wanting to win” as the top destructive habit of leaders. Certainly we need the humility to question ourselves in such situations.

The third aspect of humility is rarely discussed: Organizational humility. Some organizations seem to swagger. Enron comes to mind – a huge organization that eventually imploded. When Jack Welch was at GE’s helm that organization seemed to be as brash as its CEO. It bragged about its leadership training and superior management system but not all its executives shone when transferring to others organizations, so perhaps more humility was in order.

Organizations are comprised of individuals like us. When they boast it’s often we who are cheerleading the effort, or at least buying in. We may subscribe to humility individually but can be oblivious to that value with respect to the organizations we care about. Yes, sometimes we run those organizations down but more often we convince ourselves we are part of the greatest organization of its kind – the greatest youth group, or best university, or top charity, or best coffee shop.

In his 2003 book Why Pride Matters More Than Money, consultant Jon Katzenbach urged managers to ensure their staff feel proud of what they have accomplished. While that was focused individually, group pride can be important, as sports teams show, yes even by trash talking.

Group ego – the desire to be the best and outclass competitors – can be worthwhile. But group ego can also make us blind to our faults. It also can be nauseating for employees to hear endlessly from their leaders how wonderful the organization is or customers to receive similar messages from companies whose warts they are too familiar with.

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Humility is important for leaders but also for organizations. Be modest, in and out of victory.

Cannonballs

  • Start your day not by mapping out your priorities but by asking: “What do I believe is true in this moment that just isn’t so?” Leadership coach Dan Oestreich says this allows you to challenge yourself while not succumbing to self-doubt.
  • Less than half of employees – 47 per cent – feel their one-on-ones are helpful, a survey indicates. By comparison, 74 per cent of managers view those sessions as valuable, suggesting they may need to rethink.
  • Invest in bad ideas. Good ideas that look like good ideas are obvious and others have latched on to them, argue venture capitalists Gopi Rangan and James So. You need to find good ideas that look like bad ideas.

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