tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Humility at work

I have been studying business for years, and I am struck by the role of humility in successful management.

In Good to Great, author Jim Collins looks at the characteristics of really successful CEOs. In one of the biggest business books every written, Collins writes: “The best leaders display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated. They are humble.” The best CEOs were not self-absorbed braggarts, Collins says. They attribute success to people other than themselves, but when things go wrong, they take responsibility.

Humility doesn’t mean walking around with your head down, responding “ah shucks” whenever anyone asks something. Being humble means admitting you don’t know everything. Collins is saying those really successful CEOs are willing to listen to others. Collins assures that no matter where you are in your career, you can benefit from listening to others. And that starts with humility.

A year or so ago, I had a chance to visit with David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University and an editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report magazine. He links humility with faith. Gergen said: “Humility, in my experience, often comes from spirituality … The best leaders are ones who are well-anchored …Your best leaders often have been those who have been anchored in spirituality.” Gergen should know a thing or two about leadership, having worked for four presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton).

The wisest counsel on humility comes from the Bible itself. “Conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God. For great is the power of God; by the humble He is glorified.” This passage is from the third chapter of Sirach (17-19). Or consider this passage from Proverbs (22:4): “The reward of humility and fear of the Lord is riches, honor and life.”

The opposite of humility is pride, and it is pride which so often separates us from God and from those around us. That same noted chapter in Sirach warns: “a stubborn man will fare badly in the end…A stubborn man will be burdened with sorrow…For the affliction of the proud man there is no cure; he is the offshoot of an evil plant.” (25-27).

Humility is an important management characteristic for anyone in business to develop. I am working on it all the time, although I admit to only marginal success. Scripture offers a surprising amount of wisdom applicable to the workplace. At least for now, I am finding this to be my favorite area of scripture study.

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