Many years ago, an unknown rider stumbled upon some soldiers trying to move a heavy log. Their corporal and commanding officer stood nearby, watching the soldiers struggle with their task. The rider was taken aback. He asked why the corporal did not help his men.
The corporal replied, “I am the corporal and I only give orders.”
Robust and powerful in stature, the rider dismounted and bent over to lend the soldiers a helping hand. Together, the rider and soldiers moved the log. And as he was leaving, the rider turned to the corporal and said, “The next time your men need help, send for the Commander-in-Chief.”
The corporal and his men were stunned.
For the rider was George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. And yet, for a man of such stature, Washington did not flinch in helping his soldiers with even the smallest of tasks. Washington’s humility empowered his soldiers and earned him a position of respect among his troops.
Like Washington, influential figures throughout history have shown that humility is the true mark of a great leader. Names like Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi have become synonymous with the virtue of humility. It’s as Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore once said, “We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility.”
Why Act with Humility?
Today, ego-centric and self-promoting attitudes have become the social and professional norm, seemingly necessary to survive in a world of cutthroat competition and one-upmanship. In a December 2009 article written for Forbes magazine titled “The Right Way To Sell Yourself At Work,” Helen Coster highlights the importance of self-promotion as a way to achieve success in the workplace.
“Like it or not, self-promotion is part of responsible career management,” Coster writes. “People who tout their own achievements land plum assignments and promotions. Actions don't always speak louder than words.”
Coster goes on in the article to outline methods of “perfecting a ‘bragalogue’--a short, pithy story that incorporates a few bits of information about who you are and what you've done.” This piece is among a plethora of articles, debates, discussions and books dedicated to the art of self-promotion. But most of these commentators caution that too much self-promotion can be harmful, and that individuals have to strike a balance between selling their brand and maintaining the appropriate veneer of humility.
But historically, humility has held a more prevalent position in the American cultural psyche, according to New York Times Columnist David Brooks. On September 15, 2009, Brooks wrote a column titled “High Five Nation,” in which he examined American reaction to the Allied victory during World War II.
“The allies had, on that very day, completed one of the noblest military victories in the history of humanity,” Brooks wrote. “And yet there was no chest-beating. Nobody was erecting triumphal arches.” He continued, “Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.”
Brooks recognized that Americans had handled a historic victory with a sense of dignity that was generally devoid of arrogance, conceit, and false pride. Contemporary commentators and experts are increasingly pointing to that same cultural trait of humility as an essential quality for effective management and leadership in today’s competitive global economy. Through humility, managers create a collaborative environment that celebrates successes and facilitates learning. Such leaders can constructively introspect on their shortcomings, and reshape them into strengths. But most importantly, they can create a work culture premised on compassion, teamwork, and appreciation.
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and one of the world’s richest people, said it best, “You’ve got to want to be in this incredible feedback loop where you get the world-class people to tell you what you’re doing wrong.” According to Gates, who is considered a pioneer, innovator and humanitarian leader, humility is necessary for personal and professional progress.
In our personal lives, humility is often reflected in the way we treat each other. American gymnast John Orozco’s mother shared an example of this from her son’s life in an interview with CNN during the 2012 Olympics, where Orozco was part of the US Olympic Team.
Orozco was nine years old when he won his first gymnastics medal. But his real triumph came after the competition, when he saw a little boy crying. Orozco went to speak to him and found out that the boy was being teased because he had not performed well during the competition. Without hesitation, Orozco took off his medal and placed it around the young boy’s neck, asking him not to cry. Orozco made a choice to respect his competitors and consider them his equals, regardless of their victory or failure.
Similarly, humility means that we each make the choice to treat others with esteem and graciousness. Humility allows us to approach each ebb and flow in our lives as a learning experience. By being sweet rather than snooty, we can make smart choices and develop long-lasting relationships.
Humility is Seeing the Good in All
Humility is not just how we choose to act with people, but more importantly how we choose to perceive people. Though we might resolve to behave humbly with people, if we perceive them to be lesser than ourselves, our arrogant perspective towards them will eventually become apparent to all, if not to ourselves. However, if we see everyone as greater than us, then we will naturally act with humility towards everyone. One who is truly humble perceives no one as flawed or small, but everyone as great.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan talks about maintaining such a humble perspective in Vachnamrut Gadhada I-28. He states, “…when a person is likely to progress in Satsang …day by day, he sees only virtues in all satsangis. He views all devotees as superior to himself and considers himself to be insignificant. Moreover, he experiences the bliss of Satsang in his heart 24 hours a day… In fact, the more such a person practices satsang, the more he benefits; and eventually, he attains profound greatness.”
We have found this ideal in our guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, whose life exemplifies true humility through compassion, without regard for his position.
In April 2001, President Bill Clinton met with Swamishri in Gandhinagar while visiting community leaders in India. He specifically altered his schedule to meet with Swamishri and lost track of time while talking with him. As President Clinton was leaving, Swamishri’s attention turned to a group of villagers from the Kutch region who had recently lost their livelihoods in an earthquake. Swamishri met the villagers with equal enthusiasm and consideration as he had met with President Clinton. In the span of a few minutes, he had met with a world leader and a group of poor villagers with the same reverence. Swamishri embodies the quality of sweetness with his daily interactions, and inspires everyone to treat others with equal kindness, regardless of their status or position in life.
Krishna Bhagwan says in the Bhagvad Gita, “An ideal sadhu who worships God with his body, mind, and soul is the only one who is able to love every living being equally. He is able to see God in them.” Yogiji Maharaj was an ideal sadhu who saw divinity in all and thus could think and care for everybody, inspiring those around him to treat their peers with respect.