The Most Beautiful Word In the English Language

Bruna Martinuzzi is the President of Clarion Enterprises Ltd ., a firm that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership and p
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
January 19, 2010

Bruna Martinuzzi is the President of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., a firm that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership and presentation skills training. Her latest book is The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Words have enormous power. They can make us erupt into laughter or bring tears to our eyes. They can influence, inspire, manipulate and shock. They can build and destroy. Some words have different effects on different people. One such word is “humility.” It is one of those words that is seldom in neutral gear. Some love the word and all that it stands for. Some almost fear it and interpret it as being synonymous with timidity or a lack of self-confidence.

The word “humility” first struck me in the context of leadership when Jim Collins mentioned it in his seminal work Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. In this book, Collins examined companies that went from good to great by sustaining fifteen-year cumulative stock returns at or below the general stock market, and after a transition point, cumulative returns at least three times the market over the next fifteen years.

Among the many characteristics that distinguished these companies from others is that they all had a Level 5 leader. Level 5 leaders direct their ego away from themselves to the larger goal of leading their company to greatness. These leaders are a complex, paradoxical mix of intense professional will and extreme personal humility. They will create superb results but shun public adulation, and are never boastful. They are described as modest.

An example of such a leader who epitomized humility is David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, who, in Jim Collins’ words, defined himself as a HP man first and a CEO second. He was a man of the people, practicing management by walking around. Shunning all manner of publicity, Packard is quoted as saying: “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do.”

An interesting dichotomy is that, often, the higher people have risen and the more they have accomplished, the higher their humility index is. Those who achieve the most brag the least, and the more secure they are with themselves, the more humble they are. “True merit, like a river, the deeper it is, the less noise it makes.”

Here are a few suggestions on practicing humility so that it can help you as a small business owner:

  1. Allow the other person to be in the limelight. There are times when swallowing one’s pride is particularly difficult, such as when we are engaged in a contest of perfection with each side seeking to look good. If you find yourself in such no-win situations, adopt strategies to ensure that you don’t lose your grace. One such strategy is to just stop talking and allow the other person to be in the limelight.

  2. Say these words, “You are right.” They are magical words that will produce more peace of mind than a week at an expensive retreat.

  3. Stop preaching or coaching without permission. Is a zeal to impose your point of view overtaking discretion? Is your correction of others reflective of your own needs?

  4. Seek input on how you are doing as a leader. Ask others, “How am I doing?” It takes humility to ask such a question, and even more humility to consider the answer.

  5. Encourage the practice of humility in your company through your own example. Every time you share credit for successes with others, you reinforce the ethos for your constituents. Consider mentoring or coaching emerging leaders on this key attribute of leadership.

There are many benefits to practicing humility: it improves relationships across all levels, it reduces anxiety, it encourages more openness and paradoxically, and it enhances one’s self-confidence. It opens a window to a higher self.

Many years ago, one of my university professors mentioned that “windowsill” was voted the most beautiful word in the English language. Being an armchair linguist, this factoid naturally stayed with me. For me, “humility” has replaced “windowsill” as the most beautiful word in the English language.

For expanded tips on leadership and humility, read The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.