How, Now, Must We Live?

Posted by Sharon Daloz Parks on Friday, December 16, 2022 at 1:45 PM PST

One person giving another a hand up

In today’s new commons - complex, diverse, morally challenging, and clogged with unintended consequences- the ancient question re-emerges: “How, now, must we live?” A fitting and wise response necessarily includes “with humility.” Ironically, at a time when arrogance and bullying are on a parade in the public square, humility is steadily climbing up the rank order of vital capacities required for effective leadership.

What is Humility?

My preferred definition of humility is “a sense of right proportion.” Humility is the capacity to discern one’s place and relationships among disparate elements and neither overclaim nor underclaim the power of one’s role and competence within a radically interdependent world. That is, a firm grip on reality is a stepping stone into the practice of humility. Humility requires a kind of courage to rightly calibrate and honor both our strengths and our limits.

To be clear, humility as described here can and usually does walk hand-in-hand with a fierce clarity of deep purpose and commitment. Moreover, in ways, both seen and unseen, a practice of humility fosters the common good because it resists the claims of mere self-interest, calls for being exquisitely attuned to a larger ecology of life, makes room for the contributions of others, and at the same time enables us to step up and be responsible for our own power and role within that larger scheme of things- a sense of right proportion that can take more into account and optimize the good of all. 

Humility in Leadership 

The value of humility has become more notable because today’s organizations require leadership that can comfortably handle ambiguity in the face of a relentless call for innovation and creativity. The process of creativity requires going to the edge of “business as usual” and facing an unknown frontier. Humility is a hallmark of leadership that can find a comfort zone on that edge of knowing and not knowing and can hold authority and maintain trust in uncertain conditions.

This capacity for humility matters, in part, because humility yields three interrelated and essential qualities of effective leadership: Curiosity, patience, and the courage to fail.

  1. Curiosity. In the practice of leadership, humility reflects an awareness of one’s own finitude (and often also the finitude of one’s organization when patterns that are familiar- even lauded- are no longer fitting). Such awareness can spur curiosity. As the velocity of change accelerates, active curiosity about how to gain insight by collaborating across functional boundaries with genuine enthusiasm for the good ideas of others- whether within or beyond one’s own organization and field of competence-becomes a key strength. Curiosity requires the capacity to say “I don’t know.” Curiosity unlocks the imagination and opens the door to surprise. Hard-core assumptions may dissolve and new opinions may appear. -Curiosity emerges in the gap between what is and what could be, and humility is the soil, the seedbed, of curiosity. Indeed, the word humility is rooted in the word humus, meaning soil- also the root of the word human. “Dust we are and to dust we shall return.” (Genesis 3:19, NIV) The trick is to avoid the mis-evaluation of that dust.
  2. Patience- the capacity to wait, to pause. Most of us work in places that expect us to take action, be decisive, and make decisions “in real time.” Humility re-orients our relationship with time, because humility is formed in our relationship with truth-that is, the recognition that not all truth has been given into our keeping nor does new insight necessarily arrive on demand. The facts may be brutal, but out perspective is always partial. Our expertise is always conditional. Yes, there are times when in the moment we must “go with our gut”, but more often, critical decisions cannot be made without, as it were, “time on the balcony.” We need to take the time to move from the thrill and stress of the dance floor to the balcony, where we can read larger patterns alive in the dance. There we glean a larger view and can discern more possibilities about how we want to re-enter the dance- to join or change the rhythm, re-align or keep the partnerships, deepen or recast the purpose of it all. ”The balcony” is a primary place for learning to tolerate our longing for insight, which in the life of the mind appears as a gift for which we must often wait. Effective actions follows reflection, and reflective time is hard to come by if we only ricochet off one deadline after another. Humility gives us the strength to pause.
  3. Courage to fail- failure is fuel. Great artists and engineers know that failure is a part of the creative, innovative process. In the workplace, however, there are pressure to finesse failure and move on- at the cost of investing ongoing energy in denying the cringe inside. Perceived or real, “failure” is a gold mine for learning. Humility yields a hunger for learning, an gives rise to the courage to detach ego from failure and vie into a robust analysis of what really happened, but not wallow in it. A humble posture can help us to feel the devastation (if necessary) but skip the shame, gain insight from the perspectives of relevant colleagues, ask forgiveness if appropriate and carry new learning into our next attempt. Conscience and competence are hones and refined in the fires of failure.

Our cultural images of managerial leadership have rarely included humility as a dominant characteristic. In today’s commons, as part of the great work at hand is the creation of a more adequate cultural imagination of what is asked and allowed in the formation and practice of leadership. Humility must now command a central place in our lexicon as we work the question: “How, now, must we live?