We’re in the midst of a global reset in the wake of a pandemic that has humbled us all, reminding us how quickly a microscopic virus can send us hurtling off the rails. We feel it. We know this new humility.
I’ve been thinking about the appeal of public humility when it is demonstrated by leaders and how rare a quality it is.
Recently, we endured four years of the least humble president imaginable. Never have so many arrogant and narcissistic personalities gathered under one tent. We experienced a scorching drought of humility as the White House became ground zero for galloping egocentricity and cultish hero worship.
Now humble pie is back on the White House menu, with Jill and Joe Biden in residence. Every politician has some ego; even Abraham Lincoln, born in a one-room log cabin, somehow developed the self-confidence, ambition and political moxie to maneuver himself into the White House as our 16th president. I mention Abe because he is thought to be our must humble president.
President Biden seems humble enough. Observers say that the early, devastating personal losses of his wife and daughter curbed the usual hubris that comes with a political life. The death of his son Beau further tested his mettle.
Biden is a PB&J, Amtrak-riding, ice cream-loving kind of guy. He’s relatable, a welcome attribute in a fractured culture.
Humility in public life is rare. Ours is a culture that celebrates the wolves of Wall Street and sports and entertainment predators who claw their way to the top and then shout their success from the high ground. “Me, me, me! Look at me!” Winning at all costs — at any cost — still gets points.
Humility, defined as a sense of modesty and self-effacement, is a necessary but disappearing value. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Manage and watch your words, for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions, for they have become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits, for they shall become your values. Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny.”
It’s a long and winding road from Gandhi to Trump and his bragging, lying and chest thumping, from the $51,000 jacket Melania wore to Rome, from Ivanka taking a seat at the G20 table, to Trump throwing around presidential power like a Frisbee. The hot shots at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. evinced no trace of humility or self-awareness or compassion. The deception of downplaying the coronavirus pandemic while lining up for their own vaccinations was galling, part of a pervasive sense of entitlement.
Jack Zenger, a contributor to Forbes magazine, wrote a piece about the difference between humble and egocentric leaders. He summarized research he had published in the Harvard Business Review. He said of the study, “Surprisingly, the most effective leaders consistently under-rated themselves. The more they underestimated their abilities, the more effective they were perceived to be as leaders. We assume this is caused by a combination of humility, high personal standards and a continual striving to be better.”
According to the American Psychological Association, humility creates a sense of “we-ness” in relationships. Being humble means being able to form cooperative alliances — a crucial component in strengthening connections, according to a Huffington Post story. “Of any communal endeavor, whether it’s a business, a family or an athletic team, humility can make those relationships better,” the article states.
The Dalai Lama said of humility, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them. . . . the spiritual qualities of love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, humility and so on are indispensable.”
Weighing in on the id, or anti-humility force in human nature, Sigmund Freud described it as the personality component made up of unconscious psychic energy that works to satisfy basic urges, needs and desires. The id operates based on the pleasure principle, which demands immediate gratification of needs. Hello, Former President. What could be more id-ish than compulsively tweeting your uncensored thoughts out to the world?
Humility is knowing you don’t have it all together. It is raising up others, taking responsibility for your actions and feeling gratitude for success. Observe the president as he fights for the underserved and the overburdened. Observe the Bidens as they meet and comfort the sick, the bereaved and the broken people in America. I see two grown-ups who bring humility to their work and their life.
Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.