Throwback Thursday: Humility is a Rare & Powerful Trait

throwback thursday humility

Today's post is a Throwback Thursday look back at a blog post from 2014 on humility: “The Leadership Pond Usually Isn't Stocked with Humble Fish.”

I recently re-read parts of the book that inspired the post, Toyota by Toyota: Reflections from the Inside Leaders on the Techniques That Revolutionized the Industry.

It's an outstanding book that I recommend to people every chance I get.

As I mentioned in last year's post, chapter 1 emphasizes humility quite a bit, as you see in the title of chapter 1.


The author of the chapter, Darril Wilburn, writes about the need to have humility AND courage.

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Darril points out it requires courage to point out a problem and humility to “deeply understand the current situation.”

Humility also means being willing to admit that there is a problem.

Humility means “we don't really know so we must understand and then try many things to see if we have the right solution.”

He summarizes his lessons learned beautifully:

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 7.30.14 PM

I was reminded of these lessons recently, when I saw a wonderful passage in Dr. John Toussaint's most recent book, Management on the Mend.

He writes, of humility:

“…in humility there is great freedom. We can stop pretending to know everything.”

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I also shared the quote in my talk yesterday for the Leapfrog Group and it really resonated with folks:

There's such a focus on humility within the Toyota Production System and management style.

Humility means we shift from readily KNOWING the answer to being willing to FIND the answer through TESTING small changes. We might try something that doesn't work. Humility and the willingness to admit that is an important part of the Plan Do Study Adjust (PDSA) approach.

Otherwise, we just have Plan Do Confirm Rationalize if we can't ever ” be wrong.” Being wrong means we've learned something, if we're humble enough to admit that.

humble mug

For all of the talk about Lean culture, I don't recall ever seeing any classes or workshops being offered on humility. Maybe it's a silly notion — can people actually learn how to be humble? Can a person become more humble, or is it one of those traits that's pretty well settled by the time we're adults?

Thankfully, nobody is offering certifications in humility or “humility belts” — and hopefully we never see anyone with this ironic coffee mug that I created.

I'd propose we need more humility. The stories contributed to the book “Practicing Lean” demonstrate humility in different ways and I admire everybody who has contributed (and will contribute).

I don't sit here claiming to be the most humble or that I have this all figured out. But my hypothesis, shared by others, is that more humility leads to more improvement in an organization.

If we need more humility… how do we get there?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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