The Cure For 2020? Humility

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- 7 min read

When I was asked to speak at a University of Michigan symposium on the subject of humility a few years ago, I honestly knew little or nothing about the subject. Beyond a general understanding of what the word meant, and that it was probably a good thing to have, I wouldn’t have had much to say about why it would matter. In the intervening months of inquiry, I’ve learned a lot.

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I can see now, very clearly, how humility can help us in so many ways—at work, in society, at home—to make our lives more rewarding and our work more effective. I realize, too, how a lack of humility is behind so many of the problems with which we struggle.

The power of humility

Humility, I’ve learned, works quietly. But please, don’t confuse humility’s calm discretion with passive ineffectiveness. Humility, I now strongly believe, has power; the power to heal, the power to help. The power to restore health. While the news seems to get louder and ever more frenetic, humility is waiting for us to let it contribute to the conversation. If humility was a guest professor, the assignment it might give us would be to turn off the news, take a couple of deep breaths, cock our ears, look inward, and pay close attention to what comes up in the quiet. What at first, to the casual observer, could sound like nothing at all, just might turn out to be a wonderful whispering source of strength and wisdom.

In the inflammatory state of current national discourse, humility is a soft but still effective voice leading us away from ego, and in the direction of much needed doses of dignity, compassion, kindness, inclusion, reflection, and respect. (To paraphrase the late-folk singer and spoken word performer, Utah Phillips, we might want to consider adding “rant control” to our list of programs going forward.) As Wendell Berry writes: “It is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

Does the subtle, gentle presence of humility have much value when our country is in crisis? On its own, we know, humility won’t cure Coronavirus. But having learned what I’ve learned over the last few years, I’ll answer with an adamant yes. Why? Because rather than shutting out what others (with whom we may not agree) have to say, humility leads us to be more open to the input and help of those who know more than we do. It makes it easier to meaningfully say, “I don’t know.” It increases the likelihood that we will own our responsibility for our errors. It improves the odds we will take the advice of experts seriously, even while still making our own decisions. Humility makes it more difficult to be curt and dismissive. More difficult to be curtly dismissed. And harder to say, “I don’t care.”

Will humility have an impact on our other recovery? The rebuilding of social trust and mutual respect? I will answer, adamantly, in the affirmative. Humility, I believe, is incompatible with racism, hierarchy, and hatred. Twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “To the end of history, social orders will probably destroy themselves in an effort to prove they are indestructible.” Humility, by definition, could help us steer clear of that tragic fate. If we have humility we accept that we are all imperfect, all fallible, all interdependent. This past spring, I began to think of 2020 as a “marathon through a minefield.” Humility, I’ve come to realize, is one of the keys to successfully getting through. When you don’t need to be “the best,” “the biggest,” or “first to the finish line,” the odds of successfully getting to the other side of the minefield—without losing our minds, our lives, or our livelihoods—increase significantly.

Hire for humility

And what about in our organizations? Absolutely. Humility helps on so many levels. Patrick Lencioni, in his book, The Ideal Team Player, lists “humility” as one of three critical characteristics. (The other two are “hungry” and “smart” (as in socially intelligent and highly collaborative). When we come from a place of humility we’re able to reduce the role of hierarchy.

I would suggest that when we approach the world from a place of humility, it makes it much more likely that we will:

  • own our own part in creating the problem with which we’re confronted
  • acknowledge our shortfalls and ask for help
  • understand that none of us have all the answers
  • treat everyone with whom we interact with dignity
  • be much more open to outside perspectives and creative insights

With all that in mind, I’ve realized that we can begin to actively hire for humility. We can also make it a part of our job expectations—here at Zingerman’s we’ve include it in our new Statement of Beliefs (more on that in a future article). I realize now that through many of our philosophies and systems we’ve already been teaching it. Our long standing work with Servant Leadership, Stewardship, Open Book Management, open meetings, our Training Compact, our approach to personal energy management . . . all of these have humility embedded in them.

Everything begins with humility

My own work with anarchism, I see now, is also wholly enmeshed with humility—when one begins with the belief that everyone is a creative, intelligent human being capable of doing great things, and that our work as an organization is to help them access and actualize that greatness—it must, by definition, begin with humility. Humility, I’ve come to believe, is that state in which our humanity is best brought out. As I wrote in “Humility; A Humble, Anarchistic Inquiry”:

The linguistic origin of the word “humble” comes from the Latin “humilis,” meaning “grounded” or “from the earth.” It’s connected to the word “humus,” which refers to the organic component of soil. In Hebrew, the name of the first man in the Old Testament, Adam, comes from “adama,” or “earth.” Which leads me to wonder if living humbly is a prerequisite for bringing our full humanness to the fore? Perhaps humbleness happens when we’re at our most human? And when we’re at our most human, we’re effectively in a grounded state of humbleness?

What became clear to me as I pursued my studies on the subject, is that to stay meaningfully humble is a multi-layered, complex piece of work that continues on for our whole life. As we do that work, we all impact, and are impacted by, each other. None of us can do it alone. Maybe we could consider authoring a Declaration of Interdependence that references Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Humbleness? We are all, whether we like it or not, ultimately in this together.

Humility, I’ve come to see, is a prerequisite for making that happen. If we want to build healthy, human, and happy organizations, humility has to happen first. Humility allows us to honor the uniqueness of each person we meet, and to celebrate the beauty of the businesses we’re trying to build. It’s a perfect fit for the work of Corporate Rebels. As poet Lucille Clifton:

won’t you celebrate with me
what I have shaped into
a kind of life? I had no model . . .

This guest post by Ari Weinzweig, co-founder and CEO of Bucket List company Zingerman's is adapted from his newly-released pamphlet, “Humility; A Humble, Anarchistic Inquiry” (Zingerman’s Press). Also available in e-version.

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Replies (5)



More of this - inclusion and diversity is pointless without humility & respect. A culture of genuine teamwork not just stats to be regulated by or a buzzword to blog about.

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Andy Farina

Andy Farina

BRAVO!! Well said. Without courage and humility, we can not trust and connect as human beings. And without that, organizations, communities and people are greatly harmed and ultimately come to ruin. May we help each other operate from humility. Thank-you Mr Weinzweig for launching the discussion with grace and wisdom!

| | 1 | Flag
Tim Atkinson

Tim Atkinson

“To find your feet in business: stand still, and look down” (me, 2005). That’s a humble, and effective, thing to do. Humility has a place, without doubt. It’s not a ‘thing’ to be done, but rather, a way to be.

| | 1 | Flag


Humility is ingredient, recipe and power for collective genius.

| | 0 | Flag
Gary B

Gary B

Excellent review of what humility can mean. Humility is so important in business and non-work life. In business, I agree with the Pat Lencioni view, it is important for getting to good performance for all colleagues, and humble leaders engage the business and empower others (no ego!).

| | 0 | Flag
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