Every once in a while, some prominent figure in the public eye is praised for being humble, usually at their funeral. Humility isn’t a quality our society often applies to success, since it doesn’t sit well with other qualities–drive, ambition, ruthlessness, competitive fierceness–that are equated with success all the time. To change this, we need to consider humility not as a religious virtue–the models for it have traditionally been selfless spiritual guides like Jesus and the Buddha–but as a practical way of life.
Seen in that light, humility has one great advantage–it allows you to set your ego aside. At every level of achievement, the ego likes to claim credit while overlooking that the same ego blinds us, leading to bad decisions, poor relationships with others, and a false sense of invincibility. It’s often said that there’s no “I” in teamwork, but there’s no “I” in “clear and open-eyed,” which is what a truly successful person needs to be.
I’d suggest the following steps as a start in practical humility:
1. Keep your feedback loop large. On any project, leaders and followers co-create each other. There is constant input and output. If you get input only from your closest circle, you won’t be in touch with the whole picture.
2. Stay flexible. It’s not hard to detect when someone wants to hear only praise and support for their own ideas. Be flexible enough to allow your core beliefs to be challenged. Such beliefs make the ego think it’s always right, a dangerous delusion.
3. Welcome criticism and know your opposition. Leaders who rise high often feel insecure about their position. They are constant targets of jealousy and criticism. Since this is inevitable, start early on to embrace other points of view, accommodating them when you can and at the very least listening to your critics and taking them seriously. There’s no better way to disarm them.
4. Be good at giving sincere feedback and be alert to the repercussions. Everyone takes notice of how praise and blame are handed out. No one is indifferent. Make sure your feedback doesn’t demean anyone, and if you are in doubt about hurt feelings, see the person privately. “Are we okay?” isn’t enough. Look and listen to their personal reactions.
5. Don’t claim a monopoly on the truth. Keep in mind that you do not see the whole picture. This will instill a desire to hear as many perspectives as possible.
6. In any meeting, never lose sight of one central question, “What do these people need?” Never leave the room feeling confused about this. Behind every discussion, somebody needs something. Your ego needs are just part of the mix.
7. Know the difference between what somebody needs and what they want. We all want more of anything that is available; that’s how the ego is designed. But most of the time, what we actually need isn’t clear. Ego and emotions stand in the way. If you can state your real need in any situation, undistracted by what your ego wants, you will qualify as extremely clear-sighted.
It’s undeniable that the ego, with its focus on I, me, and mine, plays an essential role. The hidden trap as far as the ego goes is that we seem to need one all the time, the stronger the better. Leaders at the top are expected to be decisive, certain, and self-directed in the face of pressures from all directions. Yet even in this real-world scenario there should be a value on setting ego aside temporarily, not simply to make a show of being humble but to get things to work better.
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. His latest book is The 13th Disciple: A Spiritual Adventure.
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