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The Need for Humility in Business

When I was 19, I was cast in the role of Thomas Becket for a production of T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”. I spent many hours gleaning truth from Eliot’s beautiful, succinct verse. Philosophically, it would forever alter how I view those in power and the choices they make.

As the play begins, word reaches the cathedral that the king has dispatched soldiers to kill Becket. Becket’s congregation and fellow priests plead with Becket to flee. Becket calms them, while remaining steadfast in his decision to accept his fate. He is then visited by four tempters, each offering some form of reward for a given choice. He handily rejects the scenarios of the first three tempters. However, the fourth tempter forces Becket to examine his personal motives for accepting such a fate. The tempter reasons that the choice of martyrdom is ultimately self-serving; undertaken not for the sake of the church, but in a bid for historical significance. Momentarily thrown, Becket regains his resolve, stepping back from the most subtle treason of the soul:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.1

These words encapsulate a very basic quandary for anyone who makes decisions. It begs the questions:
· How do we know when we are doing the right thing for the right reason? And…
· What is the key factor that prevents us from doing the right thing for the wrong reason?

I think the key is humility; a very simple, yet not-so-simple, choice. To make the right choice for the right reason, those in power must do so with a sense of humility. They must be careful their personal desires and needs don’t circumvent the needs of others. They must subjugate themselves to serve a greater cause.

Humility. It looks great on the resume of one’s humanity. Kindness? Check. Fairness? Check. Humility? Check. Like listening, it’s a fairly effortless way to gain something. By listening we gain information, but also the reputation of being a good listener. Good listeners are rare and such a quality is respected. Genuine displays of humility are equally rare and also admired. So choose humility! But is it that simple? If so, why isn’t the world filled with humble, passive people? I think it has to do with the opportunity costs such a choice holds.

What do we forgo by allowing others to talk without interruption? Speaking. Perhaps allowing things we disagree with to go unchallenged or receiving information we don’t have any use for. What is the opportunity cost of humility? Perhaps not getting full credit for something we’ve accomplished. In business, not getting credit for something can hurt career momentum. But if what has been contributed is truly praise worthy or valuable it will help the greater cause. So if you’re part of the big picture you get the benefit, if not the credit.

People have a hard time seeing the big picture. Therefore, the whole concept of the greater good escapes us. We tend to see things in terms of instant impact. We ask – how does this affect me? That’s not a bad thing. Self-preservation has a place in the big picture. If we don’t survive, we can’t contribute. Striking a healthy balance between self-interest and selflessness is necessary. But being selfless? That’s hard work.

When I think of selflessness the role of the humble servant comes to mind - as in ‘humble servant of God’. I also think of maintenance people and those who humbly clean up after others. As an administrative assistant, I frequently ‘clean up after the elephants’. I’m the one at the end of the parade who sweeps up after the pageantry has swept by. I frequently do it begrudgingly. I know that if I ever do become an elephant, I’m going to let the folks manning the brooms know that their efforts make me look good. So why do they do it?

They do it to be of service to a greater cause, a greater good. It’s not about what’s in it for them, but about what they have to offer that’s of use to others. In the purest sense, these people are rare. Mother Teresa springs to mind, but few fit the bill. Most political/socio-economic activists have a selfish agenda that underlies the good they accomplish. In these media savvy days, the world has developed a jaded eye and even the best of intentions must pass a purity-of-motive litmus test. That’s why the Bonos and Geldofs of the world don’t cut it.

I’m talking about true servants: the type of people who work for the greater good of others without consideration for their own gain, safety or well-being. Why are such people rare? Because it’s a calling. A true calling. It’s not something tacked on at the end of a pop star’s career. Not that that’s a bad thing, but hey, the Mother Teresa’s of the world have set the bar pretty high.

What about the rest of us? How does humility work in our daily lives? Or in the workplace?

Such philosophical battles play out at corporations throughout the world. Should we benefit from doing our jobs? Absolutely. However, in my studies at Augsburg, while analyzing business management scenarios, a pattern caught my eye. Time and again, managers trying to do the right thing were ultimately foiled by their own egos. Many got hooked on the sound of their own voice and failed to listen to others. Others sought massive amounts of personal media attention to keep their company in the spotlight. This resulted in a kind of blindness that prevented them from making good decisions. Then there were those who had become a fixture of the company – so integral to the corporation’s culture that they impeded their company’s future success because they were unwilling or unable to change, step aside, or step down.

In each case, they will tell you their intent was to improve shareholder value for their company. However, history has shown that they were really serving their own needs. I’m not referring to the most obvious cases, such as Enron, Tyco, or WorldCom; instances where management chose to do the wrong thing and seemed to relish doing so. I’d like to address a more subtle type of conflict – where people believe they are doing good for the greater cause, but are in fact serving their own egos and personal agendas. Let’s look at few examples.

JetBlue Airways recently made headlines after the worst operations breakdown in its seven-year history led to more than 1,000 canceled flights. There’s been just as much good news about the way chief executive David Neeleman responded to the crisis - by bending over backward to admit failure, accept responsibility, apologize and compensate customers for their inconvenience. Everyone from public relations experts to aviation analysts is praising Neeleman for doing things that are largely unheard of in corporate America.2
Such humility has not always been characteristic of Neeleman. For years he’d captured the media’s attention as an upstart taking on the big cats. He became so enamored with this vision of himself as David (JetBlue) taking on Goliath (big airlines) that he failed to notice when he and his company had become Goliath. That failure resulted in the alienation of his employees, an ailing corporate culture, and an inability to make long-term decisions. Neeleman woke up in time. His story has a happy ending, but that’s not always the case.

In interviews and speeches, Dachis smugly proclaimed that his company was superior to its Old Guard competition because it was created with a New Economy mindset. After Razorfish went public in 1999, valuing his stake at $77 million, he claimed he was worth every penny…"There are sheep and there are shepherds, and I fancy myself to be the latter," he told The New York Times.

Now, Dachis is paying the price for his hubris. Talk to him today, and you'll meet a chastened 34-year-old. He says his new mantra is: "Be humble because in success, humility will win, and in failure, humility will win." These days, Dachis is focusing on just one thing--turning his company around.3

But Dachis’ humility was short-lived. He continued to spout off in the media, cementing his reputation as the bad boy of Silicon Alley (NYC). He failed to turn Razorfish around and in 2004 Razorfish, Inc. was acquired by SBI Group. Dachis was no longer part of the company, having left the company in 2001. Under new management, SBI.Razorfish managed a change in fortunes, leading to a buy-out by Microsoft in 2007 as part of a $6.0 billion cash purchase of their parent company, aQuantive.4 Dachis recently surfaced as the CEO of a new company called Bond Art and Science. Their clients include MTV Networks,, Armani Exchange, and The Week.5 Time will tell if he has learned his lesson.

My own experience with humility and power was short and bittersweet. In 1985, I became the artistic/managing director of a small theatre company in Minneapolis, MN. It was a young, promising company that had garnered the attention of several local critics. It continued to grow under my leadership, receiving a second ‘Critic’s Choice’ award from the Star & Tribune. I was elated. So were those around me; a group of very talented individuals. But I failed to listen to their advice, taking the theatre on a path of my own design which resulted in my resignation in 1987 and a slow, embarrassing death for the company by 1991.

It was a hard lesson to learn. In hindsight, my choices were self-serving; my arrogance appalling. I had failed to listen to others. I had failed to make the right decisions for the right reasons.

Theatre is an ego driven business. It was my cause. I felt justified making the decisions I did in a quest for artistic integrity. In doing so, that quest became derailed; tainted by my ego and my own private, petty agendas. My sense of self became entwined with the fortunes and failures of the theatre company. Because I failed to separate the two, both suffered. I lost my way because I lost my compass of common sense - I had forgotten the lessons gleaned from Eliot’s verse.

When I returned to college I decided to pursue a degree in business, not theatre. I was lacking something and couldn’t continue approaching theatre in the same way. During my thirty years in theatre, time and again I’d witnessed artistic promise undermined by a lack of business knowledge. I’ve learned many valuable lessons through the case studies that I’ve analyzed during my time at Augsburg. Hindsight is a great teacher. We learn from our own mistakes and those of others. History enlightens. It also humbles.

Humility in business takes courage and vigilance. Those in power must constantly question their motives when making decisions. They must consider the big picture in the long run and listen to the counsel of others. They must be selfless, making decisions with humility, not hubris. For those not in positions of power, they must gently question the choices of peers and superiors when they sense the taint of ego or hidden agendas. These are not easy things to do. But history has proven, and my studies at Augsburg have shown, that success without integrity and humility is short-lived and unsustainable.

1. Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot, 1935
2., Faith, Flight Plan Guide JetBlue Boss: Other CEOs Need his Humility by Jeff Benedict, Boston Harold, March 5, 2007
3., A Web Hotshot Learns Humility by Heather Green, BusinessWeek E.Biz, March 19, 2001
4., Microsoft to Buy Aquantive for $6 Billion by Margaret Kane and Dawn Kawamoto, CNET, May 18, 2007


Anonymous said...

My SLP track mate...

Your facts are a quite a bit off, and I'm happy to help you set the story straight.

1) Dont believe everything you read on the internet. Especially in the blogosphere. Comments taken out of context for the sole purpose of creating pageviews, piggy backing on the notariety of others, or getting eyeballs rarely tell the story accurately.

2) I've been in New York's Silicon Alley, NOT Silicon Valley for over 20 years.

3) I left Razorfish in 2001, and had nothing to do with its eventual sale to SBI, or any of the activity of the company after April of 2001.

At that time Razorfish had close to $ 260 Million in revenue, 2200 employees, offices in 15 cities and 9 countires and over $ 60 Million in cash in the bank.

SBI bought the company in 2002 and sold it to Aquantive in 2004, and Aquantive sold itself to Microsoft for $ 6 billion in cash.

The experience was exhilerating, humbling, eye opening, and a life changing extravaganza.

humility is a virtue that is earned through the fire of experience.

jeff dachis

stlouispkrunner said...

Wow - thanks for the info and setting the record straight. It is true... the internet is never the best place to find source material. Thanks for taking the time. I am humbled.