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Humility: A new business imperative

Humility: A new business imperative

By Mark Thorpe

The last few years have seen unprecedented cultural, social, political and economic disruption. Political instability. Social and cultural upheaval. The Covid-19 pandemic. Destabilisation of production and supply networks. War in Europe. In the UK and parts of western Europe, inflation has risen steeply.

At the same time, an unprecedented scarcity of workers across multiple sectors poses a systemic threat to business. The free market, if not exactly in peril, is stuttering, and governments are being forced to intervene in order to stabilise economies and prevent social disorder. There has never been a time of greater change within the worlds of business.

Futurists speculate about where the world is heading, usually with an uncanny certainty that is impossible to justify. We cannot know exactly what the future holds, least of all at a time of unparalleled flux and amidst the swathes of unintended consequences that craft new realities to challenge us further. What seems inevitable though, is that the previous “order of things” is no longer effective or relevant in the new worlds that we have all stumbled into.

Humility in business – a cultural shift

There is now a need for a collective humility, one that is built on the recognition that uncertainty is with us for the foreseeable future and that the old ways of doing things are often, at best, losing their value, at worst serving to undermine our ability to move forward.

Humility in this context means four things:

  1. Recognition: that we do not have all the answers
  2. Openness: to learn and to change
  3. Empathy: in the way people are viewed, represented and engaged with
  4. Courage: to stand up and be different

A business with humility at its heart will see itself as part of a broader value ecosystem, where real benefit is achieved through respect and recognition of the contribution and importance of all the “actors” within it. Environment. Staff. Consumers. Competitors. Culture. Economy. All are part of this value ecosystem.

What happens in one part of this system will, inevitably, impact the system itself. Our current climate crisis is just one example of this. Climate neglect is steadily destabilising the “natural order of things” and causing us to seek urgent solutions. Lack of diversity and inclusion is another example, resulting in both rampant inequalities and commercial limitation.

Embracing humility will require that we review our language – content, tone and ambition. A humble organisation strives to be the best it can be without endangering the value ecosystem that provides utilitarian benefit. So, we strive, rather than compete. We recognise the strengths of “competitors”.  Indeed, we could do worse than start seeing competitors as, simply, other “players” and an integral part of our collective journey and growth. A business with humility pushes itself forward without needing an enemy to fight.

Becoming humble is the right thing to do

Ultimately, humility will require a cultural shift. A movement away from posturing and towards integrity and honesty. There will need to be a desire to do more social good, rather than doing just enough to be seen as an organisation doing social good. There will need to be an end to the over-claiming of virtuous actions and an embracing of truth.

Humility in business may seem like a pipe dream. However, the now pervasive “purpose” was once seen in a similar light. The rise to prominence of the purpose-driven business mantra is an example of the slow march to universalism. It wasn’t always thus.

Humility, like purpose, is something that requires work; it’s not an instant or easy fix. First and foremost, an organisation must believe that becoming humble is the right thing to do. The right thing to do in terms of ensuring the workforce is recognised and respected. The right thing to do in the sense of believing that for business to be a force for good, humility must be at the heart of that business and how it acts in the world. Finally, humility must seen as a solution, albeit a partial one, to a changing world in which businesses must do things differently.

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