, , ,

The Audacity of Humility: Leading by “All Too Human” Example

Just before the start of a “Stress, Change and Creative Teaming” workshop, I was testing out my microphone. The program was for managers of a global engineering company. Most of the 50 + particpants were ex-military, now contractors working with commands and brigades based at Ft. Hood, TX or presently stationed overseas. As I called out, “Can people in the back hear me?” a former Sergeant Major who knew me from my work at Ft. Hood (and had recommended me as a speaker) reassured the audience, “Don’t worry, the Stress Doc has a ‘command voice.’” And of course my ego if not my heart skipped a beat. (Actually, I was a clerical specialist in the Army Reserves over thirty years ago; hardly a “command” presence. However, I did start my presentation by sharing that, “In addition to my work at Ft. Hood these last few years, one not so distant experience helped me feel pretty comfortable with this ‘military’ audience: I’m a former ‘Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant’ with the US Postal Service…So I am battle-tested!”) Anyway…

When you think of the phrase “command voice,” what comes to mind: words like authoritative, firm (if not loud), perhaps self-assured, knowledgeable, compelling, focused, direct and forceful? And if we push the semantic envelope maybe even “audacious” which, according to Answers.com, means: fearless daring, (being) intrepid, and bold. And I suspect many folks would associate or use these words to describe a powerful leader. (Of course, some leaders try to cover up their lack of knowledge, skills or meaningful experience with Wizard of Oz like smoke and bluster.) In addition, audaciousness can also morph into “insolence,” that is, “heedlessness of (such) restraints (as) prudence, propriety or convention.” No big surprise for a “risk-taker or daredevil” (common synonyms of “audacity”), especially one with inflated self-importance.

And this brings me to a daring turn of phrase if not a 180 degree conceptual turnaround regarding a critical yet often overlooked facet of leadership. First, I’ll contrast “audacity” with the word “humility” and then, paradoxically, meld the two. “Humility” connotes a “lack of vanity or self-importance,” while antonyms include arrogance, assertiveness, egoism, pretentiousness, and pride. As we’ve noted, these terms border on if not occasionally crossover into “audacity” territory.

Of course, “humility” is also associated with “meekness” and “lowliness.” However, regarding “psycho-semantics,” I’m primarily concerned with a more complex and developed notion of humility. From my “humble” vantage point, “trial and error” and “hard-earned” humility reflects and hones an ego into a more mature and confident as well as more open to questioning, self-identity. Those humbling life lessons may prove an antidote to an audacity spiraling (and viraling, to coin an action verb) into arrogance. The “sadder yet wiser” individual-leader appreciates the fine line often dividing vision and hallucination, and reins in unbridled exuberance with some focused reflection and feedback. Conversely, one may need to challenge or risk going over the line to discover that fine edge or to push those “tried yet no longer necessarily true” boundaries. Clearly, this multifaceted “self” is infused with both a sense of vitality and vulnerability. And within the appropriate temporal and contextual bounds, such a leader is not afraid to express genuinely such “head and heart” variability. A quote by the early 20th century British actor, George Arliss, resonates with my conception (or vice versa): "Humility is the only true wisdom by which we prepare our minds for all the possible changes of life."

Finally, to be able to share this humbling, trial and error learning with others or to take off the “I know what’s best” or the “Corporate VIP” power mask in public can be both daring and daunting. Such honesty and humility not only reflect a degree of openness and transparency but often signal a willingness to grapple with change…and may ultimately be liberating for self and others. Hence our title: “The Audacity of Humility.” In addition, I hope to shed some “leading” light on this seeming contradiction with two “All Too Human” scenarios: one from the above referenced workshop, the other from a book on leadership.

Scenario I

This vignette involves a Vice-President of Operations, who, even before we met, made a distinct impression with his rapid-fire, “this is what I want” manner on the phone: no doubt, he was a no-nonsense, competitive, Type A driver. A second conversation, the evening before my presentation, was also memorable. This time he stressed that his managers (mostly ex-military) must learn to be understanding, even show compassion when communicating with employees. A military/authoritarian superior-subordinate communication model was antithetical to the company’s values and how the President/CEO expects his Senior and Junior Level Managers to interface with employees. And, naturally, his message had a “my way or the highway” delivery: those that couldn’t make the adjustment would no longer be employed by the company.

During my time with the group I sensed that a number of the managers were not totally enamored with the VP’s aggressive “my way/company way” attitude. (There may have been some regional tension. The VP worked at headquarters, up north, the managers were dispersed in satellite offices throughout the state of Texas.) Still, to this VP’s credit, he participated in the program without inserting any spontaneous “fire (or fired) and brimstone” corporate sermons.

Typically, the last hour of an interactive half-day program, involves my signature “Team Discussion and Team Drawing” exercise. Small groups are tasked with identifying: a) the causes of stress and conflict in everyday operations as well as b) the barriers to more effective team coordination. Then the groups are challenged to come up with a group picture that integrates the individual perspectives into a visual story or metaphor, e.g., a stalking dinosaur and people scattering in fear, a sinking ship with sharks circling, a five-ring circus with a juggler dropping balls, etc. Eventually we do a show and tell, with each group selecting a spokesperson and a holder. (Of course I urge the participants thusly: “Don’t everyone volunteer to be the holder.” 😉 Invariably the room rocks and rolls with laughter and nodding heads as people appreciate the exaggerated yet honest and revealing images along with the spokesperson messages, invariably delivered with individual style and a little attitude. Upper management is not immune from some playful yet on point criticism. However, the playfully pointed and meaningful products when seen in the context of the great energy in the room, the laughter, the sense of empathy, the teamwork, and the group creativity belie the notion of a “bash session.” In fact, a sense of “we’re all in this together” camaraderie and community was now palpable. (One senior manager later shared that he would be framing and hanging the drawings in the Dallas company office.)

Well, the VP’s group chose to present last, and you know who the spokesperson was. And then something rather startling unfolded. Instead of being the corporate mouthpiece, after articulating some of the overall pressures of his group, this exec began explaining specific images in the picture that illustrated his two toughest trials – jumping hoops for the demanding big government clients, and especially being caught in the middle of never-ending CEO demands and the needs of the people in the room. The stress takes a toll. In other words, this “company man” let down his seeming implacable mask and acknowledged that it was not all “wine and roses” in the corporate palace.

Scanning the room, seeing the quiet and intent listening, the empathic nodding, and the full-throated laughter as the VP skewered some high level policies and procedures, told me people were taking in the moment. And people were seeing this individual anew, in a more human and compassionate light. (Aha, just what the CEO claimed was the essence of the company’s values.) So by being real, showing some individuality and vulnerability, poking a little “higher level” fun, as well as laughing at a few of his own foibles, this leader was truly beginning to win the “hearts and minds” of his people. (Remember, people are more open to a serious message when it's gift wrapped with humor. Also worth noting, after the session, the VP personally thanked me: “I learned a lot.” And he would be recommending a repeat performance at the corporate office.)

Finally, even before the VP’s thanks, the end of the program proved a personal challenge regarding “walking the humble talk”: a standing ovation was immediately followed with a prized military-civilian medal-like award. Fortunately, I was able to think on my feet. I suddenly started gazing up and down the horseshoe shaped rows, looking into the eyes of each person in the room, wanting to freeze this moment in memory. Holding the moving gaze for a minute or so, and then, taking everyone in, I said, “This medal is a reflection of what we all have accomplished here today, a real sign of teamwork.” These were words from the heart: a leader is only as good as the partnerships he facilitates, especially when confidence and humility allow him to share the proverbial stage, making room for others to bring out their best music!

Scenario II

This vignette comes from Steve Farber’s short nonfiction/novella-type leadership book called, A Radical Leap. Farber relates the story of a Sales Manager whose division was dramatically underperforming. He knew he had some talented people, but the division was floundering near the bottom of the company performance chart. Something had to be done. At a meeting with his supervisory and management team, he screwed up his courage and shared his observations and concerns, recognizing that the problem starts with his leadership. He would need help from the people in the room.

The Sales Manager said he would be leaving the room so that the others could critique his performance as a leader, especially the areas where he was not being effective. In the midst of the surprise and silence, he left the room.

After thirty minutes he returned and knocked on the door. Now came another humbling moment: the group was not finished with its critique. He left again; someone came for him a half-hour later. It was not easy hearing the critique and the criticism. But he primarily listened and took notes, resisting the urge to speak in his own defense.

Yes, perhaps the consequences of this tale are predictable: in a rather short time, the division’s performance began decisively moving up the performance charts. But there is a surprising element when it comes to the moral: the improvement was not primarily driven by newfound humility or by personal changes in this Sales Manager’s leadership-operational style and substance. The real motivational generator was the impact the Sales Manager’s humble risk-taking actions had on the leaders in the room. Without prompting or prodding, the others courageously took the same “being vulnerable and asking for feedback” approach with their employees.

How’s that for irony? Daring to be vulnerable by opening yourself up to criticism (first, though, facilitating an atmosphere whereby your request is deemed trustworthy), ultimately helps people focus less on your flaws and errors. Actually, you become a role model for humility as well as courage, and in vital operational areas a model for reaching out to significant others for insight and ideas.

Closing Summary

A capacity for being vulnerable and humble, whether by laying down the “self-important” corporate mask and megaphone or by inviting and absorbing critical feedback, involves accepting and sharing your “less than perfect” nature. Courageously coming down from the pedestal makes it easier for people to meaningfully relate and connect and it encourages those around you to be more accepting of their own humanity, motivating understanding and compassion for self and others. And for a pro-active and empowering leader this paradoxical perspective surely confirms the “audacity of humility.” Words to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is a one-of-a-kind "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst." The "Doc" is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. The "Stress Doc" is also a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. And he is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™. Mark is an Adjunct Professor at Northern VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions and Brigades, at Ft. Hood, Texas and Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

Leave a Comment

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Love it. I think a true leader knows the times when to be human and to lead even when they are confused and the decision is grey.

Think about working for a 5 star general - you don't want him to really go into about how he isn't sure if this will work (that the other option makes sense too)...and getting pressure from upstairs.

Profile Photo Mark Gorkin

Thanks, Steve. Yes, of course, situational context must be considered. I believe that considering and engaging with others' prspectives in non-crisis times is why people are willing to trust, support and productively follow a leader into "battle."

P.S. Speaking of generals, I'm looking to do some consultant-counseling-team building work with the military. Any ideas or names I might follow-up with?