Humility : a key ingredient for growth

There’s a man on a bench in Manhattan. He is telling his story : “When we were young, we didn’t know if we were artists. These days everyone walks around like they’re contributing something. There'’s no angst anymore. There’s too much certainty. And that’s a shame. …/… When I was a young man, a person that I respected told me that I was an artist. It was one of the worst things that could have happened to me. I stopped walking into museums or galleries with a sense of awe. I walked in feeling like an ‘artist.’ My arms would be crossed. If I liked a piece, it was ‘good.’ If I didn’t like a piece, it was ‘bad.’ I didn't feel vulnerable anymore. I lost my humility. And that’s when growth stops.”

The particular moment that you stop growing is not a moment to look forward to. Yet, it can happen to each and every one of us. I remember the time that I started a new job at a large IT company. The fact that I didn’t have a clue about  anything made that I learned something new on a daily basis.  People laughed with my childlike avalanche of questions.  But I was happy with the answers I got and even more so with the colleague who didn’t mind interrupting his work to give me extra guidance.  After a while, I didn’t need his explanations any longer.  I got familiar with my tasks.  Slowly but surely I started doing things my own way and no longer the way it had been demonstrated. Little by little I entered a comfort zone.  And at some point,  it was my turn to take new colleagues by the hand. In their eyes, I was the expert.

Nothing ages as fast as expertise. Today’s know-how is tomorrow’s archeology.  Doesn’t every company have a couple of experts in a domain that’s out of date ?  When you’re lucky  they turn into veterans with a great story to tell.  At worst, they turn into grumpy nags who count the days till retirement.

You stop growing as soon as you start behaving as “the expert” : you expect people to listen to you and to take your advice into account. You consider new ideas with exaggerated criticism and like to announce that you’ve “been through it all”.  There really isn’t anything new under your sun !

Managers are not immune to this risk either.  Each success is another proof of their supreme competency and lessens their ability to question themselves.  And one day, they stop listening to those who dare to contradict them. They confuse deep rooted convictions with actual facts. That is the day they loose their humility.

Humility does not equal submissiveness.  Humility requires an open attitude, curiosity, the ability to put things into perspective. It is the capacity to keep an attitude of wonder, to question yourself, to ask advice and help, to keep on learning. It is the opposite of arrogance.

In many companies, this requires a certain amount of courage.  Humility is rarely listed as one of the qualities you need to climb the career ladder.  It’s the type of quality that you are allowed to display after having made it to the top.

Humility in the right sense of the word, means having confidence in yourself and being aware of both your strengths and your weaknesses.  Or to put it in the words of C.S.Lewis : “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Humble people are the type of people who are sincerely happy when others are doing well. They are open for new points of view regarding themselves or the world around them.  And that is how growth can take place :  within themselves, their team and the entire organisation.  Humility is a quality to be proud of !

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