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Natural Law #21: We Need Humility to Get to Lasting Greatness

A quiet journey that will help us lead better lives

Many people, wanting to live their lives in more interesting ways, will decide to take the occasional cooking lesson A well-connected friend asked me the other day to let her know what she should tell politicians of both parties that small-business people would like to have right now. Since I struggle to find the words to share my own thoughts in meaningful ways, I can’t claim to speak for anyone else in business. Her question though, is an interesting one. I’m guessing that most people’s responses would be to suggest policy changes—raise or lower taxes, expand or eliminate the stimulus, reduce regulation, or invest in more environmentally friendly technology, etc. My mind went in a different direction. My instinctive response was to skip right past all that policy stuff and quietly write back: “Humility.” It seemed silly at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. If humility were the order of the day in Washington—or anywhere else—we might be reading very different stories in the news every evening. As Wendell Berry writes so beautifully, “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet and learn to be at home.” It might sound like a small request, but in a world dominated by folks who tend to think first about having their way with the competition, trying to win top rating, or power up to higher rankings, humility is a whole lot harder to make happen than it might seem.

Although the thought about humbleness happened to come to my mind in response to my friend’s question, I believe that humility is hugely important for each of us to work on, right here, right now, in our own organizations. We can lament the lack of humbleness in the halls of Congress all we want, but the truth is we never need to wait for new legislation in Washington to work at gaining humility here at home. The pursuit of humbleness, I came to understand in the process of working on what became the pamphlet, “Humility: A Humble, Anarchistic, Inquiry,” isn’t something that requires a political directive nor a permit from the Planning Commission. Humbleness is a self-directed, self-reflective, inside-out activity. At the end—and the beginning—of the day, it’s up to each of us as individuals to make it happen.

Humility, I’m reminded almost daily, is the opposite of most of what makes it into the news. As I wrote in “Humility”:

Humility, by definition, won’t win big headlines.
It waits quietly in the wings.
If we listen closely, humility has a lot to teach us.

Can something that sits by so quietly while others bluster really matter that much? Absolutely! In fact, I’m going to suggest here, the critical importance of humility makes it a Natural Law. Like gravity, we don’t have to like it, but if we want to get to meaningful organizational greatness, we do need to live it. To arrive at the sort of spiritually and financially sound success most of us aspire to, our work must begin in, and from, the ground at our feet that Wendell Berry wrote about. As I wrote in the pamphlet:

’ve come to believe that one will never build a healthy, sustainable organization if ego takes priority over ecosystem. That’s not to say you can’t make money or get famous without humility. A half an hour of historical review will show you that’s not the case. But in the same way that steroids can pump up muscles for a short time and leave behind a broken body in the long run, the same is true for organizations. Ego can look like it’s working in the short term, but in the long run it’s not sustainable. As [my friend and artisan chocolate maker] Shawn Askinosie says, “We must do everything we can in all humility to prepare and take care of our workplace culture as if it is a treasure.”

So, with that in mind, let me frame this here for the first time in print. I’m still working to come up with the right wording, but you’ll get the idea. In the moment, I’ll just offer up here that Natural Law #21 is:

All healthy, sustainable, organizations are grounded in humbleness.

While I know that some will suggest otherwise, having spent years reading, listening, and looking (as well as tasting), it just seems be the truth of the natural world: to create the kind of energized and empowered organizational lives that pretty much everyone who’s reading this will likely want to lead, humility is an easily overlooked prerequisite.

While it won’t show up in strategic plans or stimulus packages, humility is very much what we need to create the kind of regenerative, responsible, long-lasting companies we’re after. Whether it’s in Congress, the corner grocery, or your kid’s day care center, humility is where it’s at. It’s not a quick fix, but humility has the power to heal, and to help restore personal and organizational health. While the news seems to get louder and ever more frenetic, humility is waiting for us to let it contribute to the conversation. What at first, to the casual observer, could sound like nothing at all, just might turn out to be a wonderful whispering source of strength and wisdom. In the inflammatory state of current national discourse, humility is a soft but still effective voice leading us away from ego, and in the direction of much needed doses of dignity, diversity, compassion, kindness, inclusion, reflection, and respect.

20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “To the end of history, social orders will probably destroy themselves in an effort to prove they are indestructible.” Humbleness, by definition, could help us steer clear of that tragic fate. If we have humility, we accept that we are all imperfect, all fallible, all interdependent. When you no longer need to be “the best,” “the biggest,” “the GOAT,” or “the first to the finish line,” the odds of successfully getting to the other side of all this Covid craziness and socio-economic imbalance—without losing our minds, our lives, or our livelihoods—increase significantly. As Wendell Berry writes: “It is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

I would suggest that when we approach the world from a place of humility, it makes it much more likely that we will:

  • – Own our own part in creating the problems with which we’re confronted
  • – Acknowledge our shortfalls and ask for help
  • – Understand that none of us alone will ever have all the answers
  • – Be much more open to outside perspectives and creative insights
  • – Treat everyone with whom we interact with dignity

I’ve come to believe humility holds the key to creating better businesses, communities, and in the context of my friend’s question, countries. It’s a very different way of processing our problems and thinking about possibilities, one that has the quiet power to help us help each other move forward caringly and productively. Ecologist Charles Eisenstein suggests the changes that need to happen on all parts of the planet:

Must be more than a philosophical concept if anything is going to change. It must be a way of seeing, a way of being, a strategic principle and most of all a felt reality. Philosophical arguments alone will not establish it any more than appeals to prudence and reason will solve the ecological crisis. When we restore the internal ecosystem, the fullness of our capacity to feel and to love, only then will there be hope of restoring the outer.

Natural Law #19 reminds me that “Everything—and every one of us—is imperfect.” We are all fallible, and we all, I will humbly submit, fall short. In alignment with what Wendell Berry writes, David Brooks suggests that, “We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling—in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.” Humility, he says, “offers self-understanding.” When we fail to ground regularly in an effective state of humbleness, our lives, and our organizations will slowly but surely suffer. The pursuit of that humility, Brooks believes (and I agree), helps us hold ourselves, and our organizations, together. Without the self-awareness in which humbleness begins, Brooks writes: “A humiliating gap opens up between your actual self and your desired self.” When we accept our imperfection and embrace the help of others, Brooks says, “The stumbler is made whole by this struggle.”

In the organizational ecosystem model I’ve come to see humility as humus. Here’s a small snippet of what I wrote in 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?

If you doubt the importance of humility, we might then look, metaphorically, to soil science instead. Soil in the ecosystem model equates to organizational culture. Humility is the humus, the topsoil, the richest and most positive part of that culture, the part in which good things are most likely to grow. Without humus, we can still plant, but long-term yields will likely only decline over time.

We are, unfortunately, losing humus at an alarming rate. Eric Verso of Stanford says, “The estimate is that we are now losing about 1-percent of our topsoil every year to erosion … The United States is losing soil at a rate 10 times faster than the soil replenishment rate.” This pattern, sadly, continues to play out both on the planet and, metaphorically, in the places we go to work. Which is again, both literally and metaphorically, why I believe that restoring both humility, and humus, are so important. Dr. Ted Albrecht, an agronomist and professor of soils at the University of Missouri, studied the connection between human health and soil quality, said early in the 20th century that, “[R]ebuilding and conserving our soils is the surest guarantee of the future health and strength of the nation.”

Scientist Suzanne Simard says, “The humus is the foundation of the forest … It’s an absolutely fundamental part of the being of the forest.” Rinkesh Kukreja, the founder of Conserve Energy Future, says that humus is “the backbone of crop production as it has a major role in their growth.” Kukreja wrote “13 Extraordinary Benefits of Humus To Improve Soil Fertility.” They’re relevant for farming, but they make just as much sense in the metaphorical model of the organizational ecosystem as well. Humus, Kukreja writes, holds more water in the soil (humility helps our cultures conserve generosity); humus helps the soil hold together and reduces erosion (humility aids in maintaining cultural cohesion); it moderates the soil (humility helps hold drama down and reduce the swings to emotional extremes). It also, Kukreja says, increases fertility (humility makes it more likely that new ideas and new people will take hold). Organic farming expert Paul Sachs shows that humus holds remarkable amounts of energy in the soil (humility increases the energy in our organizational cultures.) These quiet benefits of humus, both on the planet, and in the metaphorical organizational model, are huge. As Kukreja writes, “Humus has the ability to change the property of any given soil.”

Coming back to the business world, Patrick Lencioni suggests, “Humility is the single greatest and most indispensable attribute of being a team player.” And, he says, “Where there is humility, there is more success, and lasting success.” You will find similar statements from folks like Jim Collins, Peter Block, and others. Leadership coach Marilyn Gist writes that,

Excellent leaders are able to energize others through the extraordinary power of leader humility. … Because leaders need to be strong and decisive, some people think of humility as meekness or weakness. But just as the earth is round and not flat, leader humility is a powerful asset and not a weakness. Each of us has and needs dignity. And when leaders step all over it, they lose our enthusiasm, engagement, and energy. We might continue to do what we have to, but we’re not going to go all out for a leader who lacks the humility to recognize our basic worth.

I’ll save the many cultural and systemic how-to’s of making humbleness happen in our organizations for another conversation. Thinking quickly, here at Zingerman’s, humbleness is embedded in our Statement of Beliefs: “We believe humility is an essential ingredient for effective leadership and contributes to personal growth and success.” It’s in Servant Leadership, Lean, Bottom-Line Change, Open Book Management, etc. But even in places that encourage and support humility, it’s not easy to do. We all, me included, will always slip. I like a compliment as much as anyone; my ego is always at work. I try to manage my mind, but I have a long way to go. If I do my work moderately well, I can live by Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy’s poetic statement: “My ego talks, My humility acts.”

Can Congress work to make the practice of humility a high national priority? I don’t know, but I do know that we can work hard to make it happen here. I also know that it’s a slow process. Just as topsoil cannot be restored simply by passing legislation, making humility a big part of our personal practice and our organizational culture will not be a quick fix. It is, though, a good beginning, and it does work, both in organizations and on the farm. (Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York increased its topsoil by 600-percent, from 6 to 18 inches, over a ten year period, using regenerative practices.) When we decide to believe that humbleness is of the utmost import, a whole lot of other behaviors will shift as well. Because as Peter Block suggests: “Inverting our thinking does not change the world, but it creates a condition where the shift in the world becomes possible. The shift starts with the inversion in our thinking.”

It turns out that this idea of recommending humility to political leaders is not new. Vaclav Havel was a wonderful writer who actually ended up in politics, serving as the president of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic for fourteen years. Havel passed away a decade ago this December, but back in the spring of 1995, shortly after he completed his time in office, he gave a speech at Harvard in which he too recommended that the political world commit to an active pursuit of humbleness. As Havel said, “After all, politics is a matter of servicing the community, which means that it is morality in practice, And how better to serve the community and practice morality than by seeking in the midst of the global (and globally threatened) civilization their own global political responsibility: that is, their responsibility for the very survival of the human race?” We have the chance to lead the way, Havel said, by digging deep and returning to our naturally humble human state, a place from which humanity can return to its “own spiritual roots and become an example to the rest of the world in the search for a new humility.”

The other day I was at my friend Melvin Parson’s annual harvest festival at the We the People Opportunity Farm he started six years ago. Melvin, for me, is a model of humbleness. He gets a lot of attention for his work, but I’ve heard him say many times, “I’m just another guy trying to make a difference.” Near the end of the afternoon, Melvin got around to sharing a story from earlier this year about his two-year-old grandson, who one spring day started running around the new beds of soil. The adults, understandably anxious that the youngster would turn his new white sneakers black in a matter of minutes, decided to simply take off his shoes. His grandson happily started running in the soil in his bare feet. Melvin’s son, his grandson’s father, did the same. And then Melvin, too, followed suit. In the end, there were three generations of loving men, modeling what it means to connect to the soil, in a humble and joyful way. If we can make meaningful, everyday humbleness like that into the way we all live, the way we relate to ourselves, to each other, and to the world, then good things, I’m quietly confident, will come from it. Rather than working so hard to have our way, and knocking down those who don’t agree, it would help us to get grounded in ourselves and in the soil in which we stand, and then, vulnerable in our “bare spiritual feet,” walk forward into the future together.

This work, as I’ve said, is much harder to do every day than it is for me to just write about it here. One thing that became super clear to me as I pursued my studies on the subject, is that to stay meaningfully humble is a multi-layered, complex piece of work that continues on for our whole life. As we do that work, we all impact, and are impacted by, each other. None of us can do it alone. Maybe we could consider authoring a Declaration of Interdependence that references Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Humbleness? We are all, whether we like it or not, ultimately in this together. The good news is we don’t need permission to begin, nor do we have to wait for Congress to come to agreement on a proposal. We can just take a few deep, slow breaths, embrace our small but important role in the world around us, and get going. Here’s to good, and humble, things to come.

*** 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!