Humble Success (Part One)

Humble success sounds like an oxymoron. Usually, success results in pride, not humility. We often associate humility with lowliness and failure. The word humility is translated tapeinophrosune in Greek, meaning "to think or judge with lowliness." Yet, long-term surpassing success only comes from humility.

Jim Collins makes the business case for humility in describing the highest level of leader, the Level 5 leader in his book, Good to Great:  “Level 5 leaders are ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the organization, the work—not themselves—and they have the fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition. A Level 5 leader displays a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

The prideful person often falls prey to one of the following five "derailers." Here are the first three:

  1. "My hard work got me here." I struggled with this until the day I worked at a homeless shelter. I sat down to lunch with one of the men and heard his story. As he described growing up fatherless, with a drug addicted mother, in a crime-infested neighborhood, I realized that I would have likely been homeless if I had the same experience. We don't choose the family we are born into and, as you look back, you will probably see some key times when you got a "break" that determined your future. Hard work is important, but so is intelligence, ambition, appearance, upbringing and family—all things that are outside your control.
  2. Personal competitiveness. I'm a very competitive person, which is a blessing and a curse. Competitiveness can motivate you to take risks and excel, but it can also drive you to make poor choices. Before the recession, the Wall Street Journal used to have a section highlighting job promotions. I always read it with interest, looking first for the person's name to see if I knew them, then the new position and company, and finally their age. I would compare their age to mine to see if I was "on-track." If the person was younger than me and at a higher level, my competitiveness would kick in, and it would be time to call the recruiters. C.S. Lewis, famous for his treatises on pride, wrote:  Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more than the next man. If you are never satisfied, you will do anything to get more, and your success will be short-lived.
  3. Flattery and infallibility. When I took over at Epcot, all of a sudden my jokes became much funnier. This is a form of flattery. Many who succeed believe "success breeds success," and their decisions cannot fail. Successful people often start "smoking their own exhaust" and believe their flatterers, until a misjudgment derails them.

Next week, I’ll discuss the last two and tell you about the finest leader I ever worked for, who is a model for Humble Success.

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