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A Couple Good Questions and an Attempt to Answer Them

How humbleness can help us re-ground in more ways than one

In the four months since the release of “Humility: A Humble, Anarchistic Inquiry,” I’ve had a couple of good questions about its contents come my way that—initially—I had no answer for. I’m happy to share that the reflections that followed have helped me to further understand the importance of humility in our organizational ecosystems and to see even more clearly, just how destructive it can be if we let humbleness erode.

The first question came in early October, a few days before the pamphlet was due back from the printer. Mara Ferguson from ZingTrain emailed to see if I’d do an online talk combining two topics that had been close to my heart—humility and the organizational ecosystem model. I agreed quickly. Being curious, Mara wondered: “Where do you see humility in the ecosystem imagery?” When she first asked, I was unsure. I’d put a ton of time into both subjects, but hadn’t connected the two concepts. Humility, by definition though, dictates that it’s perfectly OK not to have all the answers. I gave it a bit of thought, and then realized that, like so many things in life, the answer I was looking for was right there all along. As Wendell Berry wrote, it was there on the “ground at my own feet”—I’d already written the response into the pamphlet:

The linguistic origin of the word “humble” comes from the Latin “humilis,” meaning “grounded” or “from the earth.” It’s connected to the word “humus,” which refers to the organic component of soil. In Hebrew, the name of the first man in the Old Testament, Adam, comes from “adama,” or “earth.” Which leads me to wonder if living humbly is a prerequisite for bringing our full humanness to the fore? Perhaps humbleness happens when we’re at our most human? And when we’re at our most human, we’re effectively in a grounded state of humbleness?

Humility, in the ecosystem imagery, would be humus, the relatively thin, but hugely important, layer of dark, rich, organic top soil in which plants are likely to be at their healthiest. To the casual observer, humus is easy to ignore. It’s almost invisible to an untrained eye. It’s rarely featured in photos and (unless it’s in a gardening magazine) humus will hardly ever hit the headlines. Yet, without it, very little of the food we need is going to grow. It’s much the same with humbleness in the organizational ecosystem. While it’s easily missed when folks are more focused on fame and fortune, very little good is going to grow in our businesses and in our communities without it.

What is humus? National Geographic says it’s a “dark, organic material that forms in soil when plant and animal matter decays.” Given that humbleness is often generated as we struggle through, and learn from our shortfalls, the metaphor—like humus in the hand—held together. The magazine also says, “Some experts think humus makes soil more fertile. Others say humus helps prevent disease in plants and food crops… Air and water move easily through the loose soil, and oxygen can reach the roots of plants.” Translating the metaphors from the ecosystem model: When humility is in the cultural “soil,” it makes the organization more productive; humility can help “prevent organizational dis-ease” (like racism, disrespect, exclusion, hierarchical thinking, and more); and when humility is in the culture (soil), then purpose (air) and the spirit of generosity (water) will flow more easily, and we will experience a positive impact on the beliefs (roots) of the organization.

Like humility, humus is both essential and also somewhat ethereal. Ron Alexander, author of, The Practical Guide to Compost Marketing and Sales, says “It is difficult to define humus precisely because it is a very complex substance which is not fully understood.” The same can be said of humility, which is why I came to think of it as “the music between the notes.” Humility is clearly important, yet, like humus, it’s subtle. When humility is absent, ego dominates, antagonism rises, voices get louder—in essence, we might say, it will all be over because of the shouting. I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that our future depends on the presence of both humus and humility.

The good news is that humus and humility are both naturally occurring. When we leave both the planet and its people in peace, each will be found in abundance. The more humbleness, or metaphorical “top soil,” we have in business the more fertile our organizational culture is going to be. People feel better; diversity is encouraged, innovation is inspired, creativity increased. In the pamphlet I cite a bunch of high integrity folks—Adam Grant, Jim Collins, Patrick Lencioni, to name a few—who support this view. For great things to happen in a meaningfully sustainable sense of the organizational word, humbleness has to be present. Same in nature. For a great ecologically sustainable agricultural ecosystem to evolve, it seems, you have to have top soil.

Unfortunately, humus and humbleness have been greatly depleted of late. Hierarchical thinking and hubris will erode them both. The correlation between the two gives me greater confidence that the metaphor makes sense. In nature, we are losing topsoil globally at an alarming rate. Susan Cosier, in “The Guardian,” reported in 2019 that:

The world grows 95% of its food in the uppermost layer of soil, making topsoil one of the most important components of our food system. But thanks to conventional farming practices, nearly half of the most productive soil has disappeared in the world in the last 150 years, threatening crop yields and contributing to nutrient pollution, dead zones and erosion. In the US alone, soil on cropland is eroding 10 times faster than it can be replenished. If we continue to degrade the soil at the rate we are now, the world could run out of topsoil in about 60 years, according to Maria-Helena Semedo of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Without topsoil, the earth’s ability to filter water, absorb carbon, and feed people plunges. Not only that, but the food we do grow will probably be lower in vital nutrients.

At current rates, I’ve seen forecasts that the planet will run out of top soil before the end of this century. Ultimately, Liz Ball, author of Composting, says, “Soil becomes sterile over time as its humus content is reduced by hot weather, removal of topsoil, or intense cultivation without replacement of organic matter. The number and activity of microorganisms in the soil is depleted. In their absence the production of nutrients in the soil is severely curtailed and it becomes sterile. While fertilizer provides nutrients to plants, it does not solve a soil fertility problem.” The same, one could argue, is true in our organizations and communities when we lose humility. (Former Senator Alan Simpson, Republican of Wyoming once said, “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”) In humility’s absence, antipathy increases. Diversity is depleted. Creativity is crushed. Rage takes the place of reflection. As is true with the lack of humus in the soil, you can make up for the absence of humbleness with artificial inputs—in this case, of cash, capital and compulsion—but “it does not solve [the] … problem.”

Will thinking of humbleness in the work world as humus in the field really help our business to run better? For me at least, the answer has been yes. As George Orwell once said, “A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image.” Four months of working with the idea of humility as humus has most definitely helped me stay grounded. Can a small metaphor like this make that much difference? George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write in Metaphors We Live By, “Human thought processes are largely metaphorical… What is meaningful are not the words … but the conceptual content that the words evoke. Meanings are thus in people’s minds, not in the words on the page.” Humus and humbleness have, honestly, become bound together into one dark rich image in my mind. And in this case, both offer the sort grounding, positive, calming, and affirming images we can all probably use more of these days.

The second question that took some reflection time came from Sheela Harden of Bennington Potters in Vermont, a longtime ZingTrain client and a thoughtful leader. She’d enjoyed reading the pamphlet, she said, but was curious: “You didn’t write anything about humiliation. Was that intentional?” Again, I had to give it some thought. The answer was no. I hadn’t left humiliation out on purpose. It simply wasn’t in my mind when I was writing. Still, it was a great question. So, what about humiliation? Where would it fit with all of what I wrote in the pamphlet? And, combining Mara and Sheela’s two questions into one: How would humiliation appear in the ecosystem model?

Again, I figured I’d best start by looking up the meaning of “humiliation.” I know I’ve unintentionally at times done it to others, and I know I’ve had it done to me. But as was true of humility, up until I began the work on the pamphlet two years ago, I couldn’t have told you much more than that. Webster says that to humiliate is “to reduce (someone) to a lower position in one’s own eyes or others’ eyes: to make (someone) ashamed or embarrassed.” Humiliation is something that’s done by one person to another. Or flipping the story, it’s what one person experiences as the result of the inappropriate actions of another. Although the words sound like they’re similar, humility and humiliation are at opposite ends of the life spectrum. And, I’d suggest, those who have an abundance of the former are highly unlikely to engage in the latter.

Psychology Today says that the result of humiliation “is a mixture of anger and shame.” Humiliation leads to undesirable denigration, which in turn leads to destruction. Destruction of the spirit and of self-image. Or, worse—because feelings of humiliation combined with anger and rage can lead directly to retaliation—humiliation can start seemingly endless cycles of revenge in which, in the long term, everyone loses. It seems, from some studies, that one can never fully recover 100% from the humiliation. The drive to humiliate the humiliator … starts a cycle of emotional violence that can’t lead to anything good. It can happen at home and it can happen at work too. Intentionally, or not, we insult, we exclude, we demean others. Humiliation is, in essence, what we humans have done to the planet.

So, what would that look like in the ecosystem? If humility is humus, then humiliation would be the stripping of another human’s—or an individual’s or the collective’s—“top soil,” making it harder for them to have healthy growth. In essence, we are kicking the dirt that should be under their feet into their face. It leaves behind a damaged ecosystem. I think back to ancient Carthage when the Romans humiliated the population, in part by stripping—and salting—the soil to make it impossible to cultivate.

In essence, when we humiliate someone, we take away their humility. Make them “less,” a lower form of human. Isabel Wilkerson has written a great deal in Caste about how this was done in this country with racism, bias, segregation and violence. Read the history of Nazism in Germany and you’ll see similar patterns. It plays out, painfully, on, and around, the planet as well. David Montgomery in his terrific book, Dirt, says, “In many ways, soil degradation set the long-wavelength pattern of history, as wars, natural disasters, and climate shifts pulled the trigger on environmental guns loaded by soil loss and degradation.” Much the same thing, I believe, happens in organizations, families or communities. As Brené Brown says, people who have been humiliated (which is, at some level, all of us) often lead “from hurt rather than leading from heart [which] means we’re working our shit out on other people… Inflicting hurt rather than feeling hurt becomes a habit.”

One of the most devastating examples of all this on climate, country, and community would be the Dust Bowl in the American Midwest in the 1930s. PBS calls the Dust Bowl, “The worst man-made ecological disaster in American history … It is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us—a lesson we ignore at our peril.” It was created in great part by taking huge tracts of land, and putting them, inappropriately, under the plow—the thin topsoil of the region simply blew away into the air. Sticking to the metaphors, it serves as a good reminder what can happen—both to the land, and to our organizations—when humiliation is the order of the day, both humus and humbleness are lost in the wind.

The good news is that topsoil can—both in nature and metaphorically in the organizational ecosystem—be restored. Franklin Roosevelt said during the Dust Bowl, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Translate it back. The organization that destroys its humbleness destroys itself.

adrienne maree brown asks, “Do we have the capacity to sustain humility? … To relax in our smallness, our insignificance?” I believe that the answer is yes. And, in fact, I will suggest doing so is essential if we want to create the kind of sustainable organizational ecosystems that we imagine. Places where humiliation is an aberration, and humbleness becomes the expected, accepted and abundant norm. Because, as author Rachel Carson wrote in the amazing and insightfully ahead of its time, Silent Spring, “Humbleness is in order.”

Here are seven things that I believe we can do right here, right now, to make sure we keep our humbleness—our organizational “humus”—intact:

1. Model it. When we as leaders stay, more often than not, in a state of humbleness, we demonstrate daily to others that humility is the way to be. We help our coworkers to grow as individuals. In the process we reduce rage and anger, increase inclusion, reduce loneliness, encourage positive beliefs, build hope, collaboration, kindness, and then some.

2. Hire for it. I wrote about this in the pamphlet “Humility,” and Patrick Lencioni has a whole series of good questions in The Ideal Team Player that you can use to make it happen.

3. Train for it. Although I would have said the opposite several years ago, I’ve come to believe that we can train folks to be humble. The pamphlet lists 16 ways—like our Bottom-Line Change process, energy management, ending meetings with appreciations, etc.—through which I’ve realized we have already been unconsciously training for humbleness for years here at Zingerman’s.

4. Expect it. Make humbleness part of work in the same way that we do customer service, Servant Leadership, or greeting everyone we see with a smile (yes, even while wearing masks). We have it written into our new Statement of Beliefs: “We believe humility is an essential ingredient for effective leadership and contributes to personal growth and success.” Once we’ve been clear that it’s a job expectation then, when we notice unhumble behavior, it’s very reasonable to, gently but firmly, ask folks to correct their course.

5. When humiliation does happen, we can acknowledge it, apologize, and always respectfully (never vengefully), make things right. Those who are familiar with our approach to service will recognize those as the first three steps we use to handling customer complaints.

6. Help people become themselves. Ultimately, when we’re at our most humble, we’re also at our most human, appreciating ourselves for who we are, embracing that we’re all imperfect and wonderful at the same time. Individuals who are living a healthy humility, rarely humiliate others—we and the planet will all be better for it. Ultimately, I would suggest this is one of the most important pieces of our work.

7. Help restore humbleness. To “reground” an organizational ecosystem from which humility has eroded, try regular “amendments” to your cultural soil of kindness, generosity, hope, positive beliefs, and dignity.

When we create an organization where humility is regularly at hand—and where its opposite, humiliation, is an aberration that’s quickly corrected for—we will be on our way to having the kind of healthy sustainable ecosystems we seek. Think about it. As Michael Gelb said, “You can change your life by changing the way you think about yourself and your potential.” Metaphors matter. Without humus, we will have a hard time growing the crops we need to feed ourselves. Without humility we will have a hard time feeding our spirits and sustaining our organizations. We have the power to look in, to reflect, to renew our spirit, get meaningfully grounded, and through that work, to make the future for all. As Thoreau once suggested, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!