Humility isn’t a Byproduct of Heroism, it’s a Precondition.

by Ron Potter

I recently read an article by Sam Walker in the Wall Street Journal that had an amazing headline.  That headline: “In a Life-or-Death Crisis, Humility is Everything”

In the article Walker writes about:

  • Alfred Haynes, the pilot that brought the DC-10 to a landing after the rear engine blew up and took out all three of the planes independent hydraulic lines
  • Chesley Sullenberger, who ditched a plane in the Hudson River without a single fatality after losing two engines. (Tom Hanks made the movie “Sully” based on the accident.)
  • Luis Urzua, the forman at the Chilean mine cave-in that helped his team survive 10 weeks before a rescue could happen.

Humility was the Common Denominator

The common denominator in each of the cases was the humility of the leaders.

In the first example, Captain Haynes was faced with a hydraulic failure that engineers pegged at roughly a billion to one chance of happening.  When Haynes asked his flight engineer to look up the procedure for steering a DC-10 under these circumstances the flight engineer replied “There isn’t one.”  Haynes didn’t get angry, he just went to the next possible solution.  Capt. Haynes spoke calmly and clearly to ground controllers and even thanked them for their assistance.

Six days later, he was healthy enough to be wheeled not a press conference.  “There is no hero,” he said, “There is just a group of four people who did their job.”

He never took any personal credit.  He placed all the credit on his crew doing their job.  He was humble.

In the second example, Sully, in his first public statement said that after losing both engines and ditching his plane in the Hudson River without a single fatality said, “We were simply doing the jobs we were paid to do.”  He was humble.

In the last example of the Chilean mine cave-in, Luis Urzua, after being trapped below ground for ten weeks insisted on being the last man out when rescue finally came.  He was humble.

Humble Business Leaders

Sam Walker suggests that many of these celebrated leaders have a remarkable mix of courage and humility.  On the surface, these two words seem to be the opposite of each other.  Can you be courageous and humble at the same time?  Can you display courage while being humble?  Yes, you can!

In fact, it’s important that you exhibit and live both.  Most business leaders seldom face situations where they make life or death situations.  At least not in those terms.  But often leaders face situations where the work lives and livelihood of many of their employees lie in the balance.  It takes courage to make and then stick with those kinds of decisions.

Several years ago one of my clients faced that kind of decision.  They were going to have to terminate the jobs of a large percentage of employees.  It was a gut-wrenching decision.  This company had facilities all over the country.  The employees didn’t work in one location.  Based on that dispersion of employees around the country that would be losing their jobs, they decided to rent jets so that they could visit every location over the span of two days.

In those two days, they sat with the employees that were going to be impacted and listened to their feelings and concerns.  They didn’t explain why the decisions had to be made or the logic behind the decision.  They just listened.  After each meeting, the employees still felt bad about what they were facing but they also felt that had been listened to and understood.  They had experienced humble leaders who were making courageous decisions.  In the end, those employees moved on quicker and felt better about the culture of the company.  They had experienced humble leaders.

Courageous and Humble

It takes both.  Courageous decisions are often without the needed ingredient of humility.  In this case, humility requires listening and empathizing.  It also takes courage to provide both of those.

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