The Middah of Humility (Anava)

Dr. Bill Robinson
Executive Director of Na’aleh

During this week’s Rina L. Janet Leadership Middot Conversation, we heard about the importance of humility, that middah which we call in Hebrew anava. As a core strength of leadership, humility involves listening first to understand (before seeking to be understood), cultivating self-awareness in the work you are doing, admitting you don’t have all the answers, and inviting others to share their diverse perspectives. We learned that our greatest Jewish leader, Moses, is known foremost as being humble.

The middah of humility is the most fundamental character strength of leadership because, at its heart, humility is about learning to become a better leader, a better parent, a better person.

Understanding Humility

Nurturing humility often runs up against our desire as parents to instill in our children a sense of self-esteem. Recently, my daughter said to me (after being on ice skates just twice), “I’m an ice skating star!” How would you respond? Our tendency is often to say “Yes, you can do anything.”

Sounds good in theory, but in practice there are limits to what we each will become good at doing. If not by dint of birth, then by the decisions we make as to which capacities we choose to develop in ourselves and our children. According to the author Malcom Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. Well at 8 hours a day, 6 days a week – assuming we rest on Shabbat – it would take 4 years of day long, committed practice to master just one thing. So, perhaps, we can master anything, but not everything or even many things.

Imagine something that you have tried to master or would like to master in your life. Imagine the day after day efforts to achieve it and what you will feel over the course of at least four years, if not an entire decade, of practice. Perhaps you wanted to master playing the piano (of which personally I have very little natural talent for) or master French cooking (of which I have some natural proclivities toward). In each case, there will be days when you feel a sense of accomplishment and pride – when you learn how to play a particular sonata with technical proficiency and personal nuance, or when you master a dish through attained technique and personal expression. In both cases, what you are practicing is not a rote script devoid of one’s own self-expression. Rather, it is the coming together of technique and a curious playfulness.

Now, imagine the next day, as you try a new piece of music or another dish, and your efforts falter. You certainly feel humbled though not so much that you feel humiliated, because you now know that the process of learning requires that you miss the mark repeatedly before hitting it; the trick is to learn from those small failures.

Similarly, the pride you feel in succeeding to learn a piece of music or cook a new dish is tempered by an element of critical self-reflection. You now know your accomplishments have an aspect of grace to it – which the Christian’s would call divine intervention and what I simply see as a recognition that in all our successes there is an element beyond our control. My ability to produce a dish of intense delicacy and flavor or play a sonata of searing beauty, cannot just be accounted for by my efforts. In the least, I owe due to those that inspired and taught me. Thus, as we feel pride, we also feel humble.

Mastering anything requires that we continually dip into the well of pride to keep us going during trying times and dip into the well of humility knowing there is always more sonatas and dishes to learn. Being a humble person is really a constant dance with pride. The important part is not to go to the extremes – not to be arrogant and see yourself as greater than your accomplishments or see those accomplishments as due solely to your own efforts. On the other end, one shouldn’t engage in self-abasement, in which you are hyper-critical of yourself to such a degree that you squash your self-esteem and not feel pride in your efforts.

Humility and Leadership – The Pause

Leadership, like playing the piano and cooking, is a practice that takes years to master. Successful leaders are also humble leaders. As the organizational consultant, Dov Sidman told Thomas Friedman at the beginning of the pandemic, “Humble leaders actually make themselves smaller than the moment. They know that they alone cannot fix everything. So they create the space for others to join them and to rise to do big things — together.

Their humility brings them to pause in the moment before taking action. They consider the situation, listen to others with different perspectives, become aware of the larger system of which they are a part, and lead with vision grounded in deep purpose.

In the pause we have the opportunity to reflect on all that this tragic pandemic is revealing about
ourselves and our society. A pause can lead to a new beginning, to a reimagination of how we
want to live differently — less unhealthily and less unequally — in the future. … after this health
crisis is over, good leaders will pivot… that pivot will be anchored, hopefully, in deep human
values — and then move in the new directions we’ll need in a post-pandemic world, where
people’s expectations will have fundamentally changed.

Thomas Friedman and Dov Sidman

Cultivating Humility

Anyone can lead, anytime and anywhere. Though we need humility to be successful. The good thing is that we can develop our capacity for humility. All our middot (character strengths) are like muscles that we can exercise and in so doing can use them later with greater strength. As Mr. Miyagi instructed Daniel in the movie Karate Kid, he was to begin his learning simply by “waxing on and then waxing off” over and over again. Through this he developed the muscle memory needed to master karate.
Leadership, like karate, has middot muscles that we can build. Here are a few practices to build the middot of humility:

  • Learn something new and stick with it long enough to feel that dance of pride and humility.
  • Whenever you sit down to eat a meal, consider all the people and processes (from cooking to nourishing the land upon which the ingredients grew) that were needed to ensure that meal arrived at your table.
  • At the end of each day (as a professional, a volunteer, a parent, a partner or just a person), write down a few ways that you “missed the mark” and a few ways when you felt you really did “hit the mark”.

Two Jewish Stories about Humility
Judaism also offers us inspiring and informative stories to help us along our journey of leadership.

Rabbi Simcha Bunam once said to his students: “Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in his left: ‘I am but dust and ashes.

The Chofetz Chaim was once traveling by train to a Jewish community to give a lecture. A man sat down next to him during the trip and started a conversation. When the Chofetz Chaim asked where he was heading, the man replied, “I’m going into town to hear the Chofetz Chaim speak. He’s the greatest tzaddik (righteous person) in the Jewish world today.” Embarrassed by what he was hearing, the Chofetz Chaim told the man, “People exaggerate about his greatness. I know him very well and he’s not that great.” The man became infuriated by what he was hearing and slapped the Chofetz Chaim in the face. That night, the man was horrified when he came to the lecture and realized that the person he hit was actually the Chofetz Chaim. As soon as the lecture was over, the man pleaded for forgiveness. The Chofetz Chaim smiled and said, “There’s no need for forgiveness – you were defending me. In fact, you taught me a great lesson: my whole life I’ve been teaching people not to defame others; now I learned that it’s also wrong to defame yourself.”

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