The circle of humility

The very first psychology class I took in college was titled The Mind and Body. It was a complicated six credit course that tackled the topic (arePeople in whitethe mind and body separate or are they connected?) from a multidisciplinary approach. Three professors split their time with us, each focusing on the subject from their own specialized perspective: psychology, philosophy and sociology.

We started the course by reading Process and Reality, by an English philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. First up was our psychology professor. Even though we were a small group, we met at the auditorium because it was round and cool. We were going to discuss chapter one.

Our professor (a brilliant mind) held the book and asked, “did anyone get this s$^%?” We were blown away by the introduction which was followed with an immediate sense of relief. All of us, including the team of professors assigned to this class, were reading this book for the first time. While Whitehead was writing in English, he literally invented a new meaning to the words he used. We had no clue what he was talking about. Neither did the bright professor.

He pointed to the middle of the floor, away from the comfy chairs, took off his shoes and said, “let’s figure this out together.” And so, for the next four weeks we went line by line, literally, and demystified his thesis. By the way, the book was about the existence of two types of “entities” - an ‘actual entity’ and an ‘abstract entity’, which related very well to the topic of our mind and body.

So what does that have to do with small business?

I was struck by the humility of a brilliant professor who was not afraid to declare that he was lost, just like his first-year students. Even more impressive was the way he went about it next; not telling us what he thought it meant but inviting us to break it down together. Sitting on the floor and in a circle was deliberate - we were all at ground level, no titles, no advanced degrees, just a bunch of humans using their collective intellectual powers to solve a problem.

Fast forward to my corporate career. Whenever I had a meeting with my team I rarely if ever sat at the head of the conference room table. I acknowledged that while I had a title and the of responsibilities that came with it, I didn't want my team to look to me (literally) for answers. From my own experience, that spot at the head of the table elicits imprinting behavior; "a young animal acquires several of its behavioral characteristics from its parent." In other words, we give up autonomous thought and only seek to please whomever is sitting at the power seat.

I was one once of those at a management meeting with all-eyes-on the CEO, Prez, whomever. When the person at the head of the table laughed, everyone laughed. When the Owner said “I think we should do this, what do you think?”, almost everyone nodded, smiled and said “I think it is a great idea.” Then, there is always one politically correct employee that 'knows' the boss hates it when everyone agrees with her, so a slight variation is introduced which elicits a pseudo discussion which ultimately ends in? Yep, we do what she wanted. I know how awful this sounds but it takes place everyday and everywhere. And, it's a leadership issue; employees need a job more than the owner needs confirmation how smart or powerful she is.

True leaders embrace humility. While each rightfully demands and deserves respect for his or her ‘position’ (in the case of small business owners the tremendous guts and risk of going at it alone), they behave in a way that acknowledges their limitations.

Business owners must embrace humility and recognize that it is not the same as admitting failure but just the opposite, it is what leads to success. There’s also the psychological aspect of making everyone around you feel at ease, a way of recognizing that we're all fallible humans with similar weaknesses and the only difference is how well we manage to hide them.

Here’s the best reason why humility leads to success: what is the end-game for all of us entrepreneurs? How far they advance financially. Nine out of ten business owners want financial freedom, the rest (legacy, fulfillment, charity) come later. While poor but happy entrepreneurs may be out there, it is never the outcome they work so hard to achieve.

Humility, asking for help and being truly one with your team will get you there faster. You'll be called upon to make tough decisions because ‘you're the boss’. Ask for input first, then make a decision. You will have another chance at humility if the decision backfires, the outcome is not what everyone expected. Own it. It’s not the team’s fault for giving you input. Business success or failure is the responsibility of it’s leader. Never ever blame those whose help will get you to the promised land.

Imagine sitting in a unifying circle (get rid of those ugly rectangular conference room tables) and look around at your team. All eyes may be on you; you earned it, you deserve it, be proud. Then, let the ‘circle’ take over and use its power to move your business forward and upward.

Fight the urge to sit at the head of the table. Humility will set you free, personally and financially.