The importance of humility in building regenerative systems

The etymology of the word ‘humility’ is rooted in natural systems, close to the ground (humus). It comes from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as “humble”, but also as “grounded”, or “from the earth”, since it derives from humus. In fact, many ancient philosophers advocated that we keep our ego in check by purposefully lowering ourselves close to the ground. And this has never been more important than it is now in today’s complex world, where the need to enact systemic change is becoming more pressing.

It really brings a fresh lens to the discussion around feeling grounded, feeling as if we are present, with our feet on the ground, actively and consciously aware of what is going on around us: the relationships we are building, the systems we live in, the present moment and the opportunities it holds. I think as a parent in today’s age, some of the biggest gifts we can give our children are self-mastery, ego management and healthy humility.

Have you ever been truly present, when the sounds around you feel so much louder, yet melodic, and you feel part of something that is bigger than you? This feeling for me happens whenever I am in nature – either hiking in the mountains (like the photo above) or visiting an element that is not my natural habitat, such as the ocean. It is powerful, beautiful and humbling, and a great place to start thinking about reflective practice, which is one of the threads that holds the web of humble connections together.

Natural systems have no choice but to be regenerative, even if we humans hinder them with our lack of humility and thoughtless actions. Getting present to the intricate interdependencies of these systems calls for systems thinking, through a regenerative lens. We need actions that not only prevent further degradation but also actively heal and improve these systems so that they can thrive sustainably. And organisational human systems are no different. They need a shift in mindset from ownership and exploitation to partnership and stewardship, from control to collaboration and from short-term gain to long-term resilience. Humility is a bedrock for these systems as we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We don’t know what we don’t know, but we do know that we all have personal agency to act, actively heal and rebuild more sustainably.

The role of humility

Humility holds significant importance in the digital age, arguably more so now than ever before. At a time when technology breaks through nearly every aspect of our lives, fostering a sense of modesty can lead to a myriad of benefits both individually and collectively.

First and foremost, humility in the digital age plays a vital role in fostering meaningful human connections. We are more and more aware of the domination of social media and online interactions, where it can be easy to get caught up in projecting a carefully curated image of ourselves – another mask to add to our collection. However, by approaching these platforms with humility, we can also showcase vulnerability, empathy, and authenticity – if we dare. This, in turn, can lead to more genuine connections with others that are based on mutual respect and understanding.

There are some all-pervasive myths in organisations about leaders and humility, and Urs Koenig, the author of Radical Humility: Be a Badass Leader and a Good Human, and I delve into them in our recent podcast (listen here). He debunks three of these myths: leaders cannot be humble and confident, leaders cannot be humble and decisive, and leaders cannot be humble and ambitious. These certainly rang true for me, as I used to have an underlying belief that humility and decisiveness could not co-exist, and that being humble meant being weak. This is another example of how we polarise everything by trying to shoe-horn it into our system of beliefs, seen through the binary lens of the systems in which we live and work. Unless we step over this it will be difficult, nigh on impossible, to change.

So where did we get this polarity from about humility being weak and arrogance or control being strong? Clearly, as with all messy human interactions, it is not that binary or that simple, but this thinking is still very prevalent, and hinders well-being, motivation, productivity and innovation in organisations. How ironic then, given that we need innovation and thriving more than ever to allow our organisational systems in turn to regenerate and thrive.

This issue warrants a whole white paper but suffice to say that we can start looking at shifting this paradigm by changing the lens to see humility as a strength, as wisdom, and as the ultimate demonstration of strong leadership. Indeed, the effective implementation of regenerative teams and ecosystems is contingent upon this very foundational quality of humility, without which the interconnected and interdependent nature of these systems and the relationships that need to be nurtured cannot be fully or effectively managed.

What does this mean for organisations?

We have already touched on the role of humility in a digitally interconnected world, where the constant barrage of information, comparisons and ‘topsoil’ highlights from social media means that we can often feel inadequate and have low self-esteem This is further compounded by organisational culture that still glorifies busyness, individual performance and comparison as a means to climb the corporate ladder. By embracing humility, people can cultivate self-compassion and self-acceptance, recognising their strengths and areas for improvement without feeling the need for validation or approval from others. We can, from this position, have more genuine connections with others, based on mutual respect and understanding. This is key for building meaningful relationships and leading across barriers and systems. We also need to scale this shift to a different way of thinking and being.

Reflecting on some of the recent workshops I have done around collaboration, the necessity for human connection and quality conversations comes to the fore once again. How do we make sure that we look after not only the quantity, but also the quality of our connections? How do we make sure that we leave time and focus to communicate effectively?

Humility for me is characterised by a recognition of our limitations, a curiosity about what that means and a willingness to learn from others, all of which are vital for collaboration and innovation. We need to understand that we don’t have all the answers and actively work to cultivate this. But how? To embrace and cultivate humility collectively, we need to intentionally build both emotional and relational infrastructure to enable organisations, teams and communities to create value, momentum for change and, ultimately, better business results. The following are a good place to start :

  • Acknowledge interdependence Humility enables us to acknowledge the interdependence of human and natural systems. It gives us an understanding that our actions have far-reaching consequences beyond our immediate surroundings. We are all part of something bigger than us – whether this is in a team, an organisation or society.
  • Learn from nature Regenerative systems thinking often involves biomimicry — learning from and emulating nature’s designs and processes. Humility is essential here, as it allows us to admit that nature, honed by billions of years of evolution, often has solutions far superior to our own. By observing and learning from what works and what doesn’t in our teams and ecosystems we can develop more efficient, resilient, and human-centred practices.
  • Embrace complexity and uncertainty We cannot control every variable or predict every consequence. Intellectually we know this, so how therefore can we encourage adaptive management practices? By having a system where policies and actions are continuously adjusted based on feedback, feelings and new information.
  • Foster collaboration and partnership Humility fosters a spirit of collaboration by valuing diverse perspectives and expertise. It encourages leaders and practitioners to listen, learn, and care about others. It encourages the integration of knowledge from different sources. This inclusive approach is essential for addressing the multifaceted challenges of building efficient business ecosystems, where no single discipline or sector can resolve the issue alone.
  • Promote ethical stewardship This comes under all sorts of titles: humble leadership, authentic leadership, conscious leadership, adaptive leadership – but the common ground here is humility, empathy and vulnerability. These qualities underpin ethical stewardship by reminding us of our duty to care for the environment and for each other first and foremost. It cultivates a sense of respect and responsibility. We all have personal agency to move from reflection to action, and to drive impactful actions, however big or small, that are fair, effective and equitable.
  • Talk about emotions This is still taboo and full of untapped potential. I spend a lot of my time on this topic talking with leaders and teams about how we can equip ourselves to not only talk about emotions, but also regulate our own in order to harness the powerful drivers this can bring to an environment where people can thrive.
image credits : Thao lee

Leaders can intentionally practice and use the above as levers for developing powerful teams and communities and actively creating the conditions for people to thrive. In fact, they can start scaling this capacity by making this a reflective and deliberate practice for themselves and their teams. Humble organisational leadership requires you to understand and actively develop the interpersonal and group dynamics of your team or community. It means paying attention to the emotional layer and bringing teams and communities together to bring about more sustainable change.

By approaching technology, leadership and our daily interactions with a sense of modesty and curiosity we can forge deeper connections, maintain a healthy mindset, learn continuously and create adaptive practices for collaboration and innovation. In a world that often prioritises self-promotion, self-interest and individual achievement, humility offers a wise and refreshing antidote in the form of thinking differently and creating spaces where people and business can thrive sustainably.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems.

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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