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The true business of humility


Humility doesn’t make for flamboyant headlines, but business leaders who combine intelligence, integrity and a generous dose of humility, build organizations that are more constantly successful and enduring.

I always keep in mind the story of the Canadian firm where a young sales executive made an error that cost the company a $5 million account. When the executive offered to resign, his boss refused, saying, “You can’t leave the company; I have a $5 million investment in you.” There are two opposing types of leadership: arrogant, timid leaders and humble, quietly confident leaders. The Oxford English Dictionary defines arrogant as “having an exaggeratedsense of one’s own importance or abilities.”

The poverty-stricken years of the Great Depression proved just the right time to launch Parker Brothers’ most successful game: one based on making lots of money. When George Parker played a trial version of Monopoly submitted by the inventor, Charles Darrow, he thought it was too complicated, too technical and it took too long to play. A rejection letter that was sent early in 1934 cited “52 fundamental errors.”

A few months later, Parker had eaten “crow.” He bought the game from Darrow, and rewrote the rules in his trademark clear English. Within two years, 2 million sets of Monopoly had been sold. Parker, typically, publicly displayed his mocking letter to Darrow as a lesson in humility. There are two basic principles:

 

  1. Serve others instead of ourselves.

Most of us are in business to make money. That end is worthy and necessary to meet our goal of making a living. But, in order to create a successful business, our direction must be from the standpoint of serving others. It is by serving others that we serve ourselves.

Of all of the business blunders, this is probably the one that leads the way to slow growth or to eventual business failure. Aside from handling various administrative and operational tasks, all other activities need to be centered on serving our clients.

Ask yourself the question: Is what I’m doing serving or going to serve the needs and requirements of my clientele? If the answer is “no”, you may be wasting time, money, and energy pursuing activities that will have no value. Focus everything you do around serving others and you’ll naturally end up serving yourself as well.

 

  1. Practice humility

Humility or the state of being humble is an absolute must in business. For no matter what we do in life, there will always be times when we cannot control what is happening around us or to us.

By developing an attitude of being grateful in the moment for things going well, we’ll be able to stand firm when things go wrong. Practicing humility means that we must face our own failures and deficiencies. It also means that we must treat others, as we would like to be treated, that we are equal with anyone else.

Humility comes from the Latin word meaning “ground”, and hence literally means grounded. In this sense it means connected to, rather than detached from, the rest of life on Earth. I think we all feel, to some point, this love and connection to all others – it is coded in our DNA, it is instinctive, it is one of Mother Earth’s basic laws – we are part of a single system. What we each do does affect every other part, including other human beings, of our Earth system, one way or the other.

We should not think of our actions as being independent. We business people have often lost our groundedness, hiding from the realities of our collective lives. It is this disconnection, not lack of sympathy or compassion, that business people use as an alibi to allow others to, and to ignore the troubles of others who fall victim to, personal and business setbacks.

Having pretenses of sympathy and compassion are learned behaviours not much connected to reality. I will instead aim for humility, not in its ordinary sense but in its sense of groundedness. In your time of distress and bad luck, I may not be able to say that I ‘share your feelings’ or that I ‘suffer with you’, but I can accept being grounded and humbled.
“It is always the secure who are humble.” — Gilbert Keith Chesterton


Mark Borkowski

Mark Borkowski

Mark Borkowski is president of Mercantile Mergers & Acquisitions – a mid-market M&A brokerage firm in Toronto specializing in the transportation industry.
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