Sunday, July 16, 2017

The importance of being humble

We’ve all met this person in our professional lives. Smart but self-absorbed, in love with their own success so far, or with the self-importance of their title, or the size of their business, or how attractive they are. Executives who are so used to everyone catering to their every need that they forget to be courteous. VCs who are so used to entrepreneurs beating down their doors they forget to be kind (or worse). Entrepreneurs with hubris who think because they have raised money they are already a success. Lawyers and bankers who have been making so much money for so long they think their time is more important than the people around them.

The behavior is irritating, but why does it matter? It’s not my place to moralize in the greater sense but in my experience the behavior does catch up with most people in their careers, one way or another, in the end.

Unless you have fast runaway success, or true genius (very rare), or are the Zaphod Beeblebrox, you are going to need the people around you for you to succeed long term. If you are arrogant it is hard to get your peers to want to work with you, or for you. Weaker people will, but the strong ones will move on. And, in the end, you are only as good as your team. People might stay with you while the money is good – attaching themselves to your coat tails – but when your company/responsibility hits a bump in the road, or they don’t need you, they will leave you.

Being self-absorbed might not hurt you at work because you’re the man with the big, hard-driving job… but chances are you are hurting the people who love you with your self-absorption. Yes, I am speaking from personal experience here both as the one doing the hurting and the one being hurt, and now observing professional friends who, in their self-absorption, forget who they are hurting.

As a good friend (and mega-company CEO) once told me: for the smart, strong, over-achievers it helps to think about life as a three-legged stool and all three legs need to be stable for your life to be balanced.

The first leg is work. How you get intellectual satisfaction and earn a living.

The second leg is fun. Family, friends, good times. How you find pleasure and love.

The third leg is spirituality, whatever that means to you. How you remind yourself that this is a huge, mysterious world and you are (no matter how important you think you are) just a small part of the grand scheme of things.

When the world is beating a path to your door, the money is rolling in to you or your company and the people who want things from you reinforce how terrific you are… how do you keep the third leg planted firmly on the ground?

A shock might do it for you for a while. A project fails, you lose a customer, you have a health scare, maybe you lose your job, but if you’ve done well in the past chances are you will do well again, so how do you keep the humbling realization that you are not the center of the universe with you?

At the Jordan river where Christ was baptized and
Israeli and Jordanian soldiers watch each other, guns cocked


Me, I find it in many ways. Through understanding history where the complex, messy story of our world and our humanity puts my insignificance squarely in perspective. Or through nature by hiking into the beauty of the mountains or the desert where I am reminded just how small I am. For some it is their God and faith. For some it is volunteering to help other people in need. What is it for you?

In my experience of powerful business leaders the truly great ones stay humble. Yes, they have strong opinions and expect to be listened to, but they also never forget who they are. The great ones treat admins, junior staff and vendors with respect, they put time into their family, they vacation with their friends, they are far from the entitled, the-one-with-the-most-toys-wins culture. They are the ones that people follow from company to company and remember with a smile for the rest of their lives.

How do you or I become one of them? I think that along with all the professional skills and opportunities in the world it is critical to remember who you are, truly, in the grand scheme of things and stay humble.

Written for a dear friend who tells me he is working on it.

1 comment:

Chathapuram Krishnan Mohan said...

Well written and wanted to share my experience. I also had a long career, then started my own firm. In a start up things do not work out as planned. But this last three years have been a humble experience and helps you realize who your friends really are. I have invested lot more time on spirituality, do what ever I can socially and spend more time with my family and friends. I am still searching for the TRUTH but I do believe I am on my way. This would not have been possible when I was a working executive.

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