On Being Humble

During a recent supervisory skills class that I was teaching, the group agreed that an effective boss is humble. Now there's a perspective you don't run into a lot. So let's take a closer look at the meaning of being humble.

My wife Joan is an avid gardener. Someday I hope to see her earn the Master Gardener certification because she is certainly a good candidate. For one thing, she is not afraid of getting dirty. In fact, if she is having a good day outside, you'll find her covered from head to toe in dirt. And loving it!

As a child, I too was really into dirt --digging in the backyard, exploring gullies that fed into the Raritan River, or tunneling in sand at the beach-- much of it in search of rocks, old coins, fossils, and shells for my collection.

Last year, I saw a science news story that said how important dirt is for our health. Dermatologist Professor Richard Gallo, of University of California at San Diego, said: “These germs (present in dirt) are actually good for us” in reducing inflammation after injury, when they are present on the skin's surface.

Even in the most humble and lowly there is great value, apparently.

The word "humble" derives from the ancient root humus meaning ground, earth, or dirt.

In organizations, we don't hear very much about being humble. Quite the contrary. The predominant paradigm we encounter is being proud, e.g. "pride of workmanship," "pride of ownership." We hear about being assertive, even aggressive. We hear about being competitive, playing hardball, and beating the other guys. It seems that arrogance (from arrogare = to claim for oneself) is more prized than humility.

But there are other schools of thought. For instance, servant leadership. I like this approach, personally. And have always practiced it, even before there was a name for it. Probably due to my catholic school education with the good sisters of charity who taught "the first shall be last" and "do not let your left hand know what your right is doing."

Two scripture passages come to mind. This mysterious and tantalizing one, from the Gospel according to John, shows Jesus using dirt as part of a healing act:

~ "Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man's eyes. "Go," he told him, "wash in the Pool of Siloam" (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing."

And this one, from Micah:

"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

To heal with mud and to walk humbly. What mysterious beauty.

Posted on December 18, 2010 by Terrence Seamon. For more ideas on being an effective boss, contact Terry and invite him into your organization.


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