Last week, my mom told me a gem of a story. She was 23 and had just started her first year as a high school English teacher. One day, she got out the record player as part of a lesson, set it on her desk and stretched the cord to the wall. During an especially important point in her lecture, she was marching across the room and, you guessed it, tripped on the cord. This wasn’t a stumble. It was an epic somersault that took down the record player with her.
“Oh my god!” I shuddered. “That must have been mortifying! Did you crawl out of the room and never come back?” She chuckled and said, “Oh honey, no! We all burst out laughing. We laughed so hard and so long that we never got back to the lesson!”
As an overly-serious perfectionist who would have wanted to crawl out of the room and never come back, I admire my mom’s good humor. She’s always had almost an enthusiasm to admit that she’s not perfect. She’s humbly tell you that this humility comes from two parents who were more focused on others than they were on themselves.
Humility means accurately assessing our abilities, acknowledging our limits and keeping our accomplishments in perspective. Although some see humility as weakness, science is quite clear: Humble people are more successful than their overconfident counterparts. They have higher self-esteem, more dedicated work teams, stronger leadership skills and they perform better at work. Humility is even more valuable for those in power. One researcher aptly observed that a humble CEO is “a genius with a thousand geniuses.” That’s pretty good for business, if you ask me.
Despite its myriad benefits, humility doesn’t show up often in today’s world. In fact, one needn’t look far from the 2016 presidential election to find some superlative counter-examples on both sides of the aisle. As Hilary Clinton’s email scandal gains more and more momentum, she seems to be taking less and less responsibility for her actions. Last month, Donald Trump made a series of controversial statements about John McCain. After at first refusing to say he was sorry, he finally offered something that was more of a hypothetical proposition than an apology: “Certainty if there was a misunderstanding, I would totally take that back.”
Protecting our ego does have some short-term upsides, but it’s nearly always the wrong choice in the long run.
I recently spent a few days with one of my favorite clients—I’m helping them create a leadership program based on my book, Bankable Leadership, which will be rolled out to thousands of leaders in their customer service organization. I toiled for weeks to build the program and was gearing up to teach it to a group of their internal trainers. Going into the meeting, I felt supremely confident that the trainers were going to love the material. I could already hear their accolades!
The meeting didn’t go quite as I’d planned. Naturally, a room full of trainers is going to have some strong opinions about what will work and what won’t. And they weren’t shy in listing all the things they disliked about my program. As we continued the discussion, my blood started to boil. How could this be happening? I’ve studied leadership for 15 years. For goodness sake…This is from my own book! How could anyone know this stuff better than I do?!
During the morning break, I went for a walk to clear my head. I figured I had two options: I could either tell the trainers that I knew better, or I could hear them out. As hard as it was, I knew I had to stifle my pride. When I returned to the room, I was nervous and uncomfortable, but curious to see what would happen. “So,” I began with my heart beating out of my chest, “let’s talk about what we can do to improve the program.”
As it turned out, the trainers’ perspectives were invaluable. They knew what would work for their audience. They offered creative ideas to make the concepts more compelling and clear. And they found connections between the concepts that I couldn’t have imagined! If I’d followed my instincts to defend my choices, the program would have been worse for it. If I’d held steadfast to my vanity, we would have never felt such pride about what we’d created together.
The following day, one of the trainers, a bright, young, new-to-his-role superstar, gave me some powerful feedback: “Despite your experience in business and academia, you were open to changing your work and not just telling us ‘I’m an expert, this is what you need, now go train it.’ You took this opportunity to learn as much as you took it as an opportunity to teach.”
I felt a tear in my eye. I wasn’t just moved by his kind words—I was blown away by the beyond-his-years wisdom about what success really means: no matter how much you know about something, you need to keep learning from other people, every chance you get. He will undoubtedly go far in his career and life.
Writer Thomas Merton once said, “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” When we're prideful, we're fooling no one but ourselves. When we are humble, though we may have to override our initial instincts, we become better than we are.