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Feature   November 1, 2005   by Mark Borkowski

Invoking a True Sense of Humility

"It is always the secure who are humble."--Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Humility doesn’t make for flamboyant headlines, but business leaders who combine intelligence, integrity and a generous dose of humility build organizations that are more consistently successful and enduring.

I always keep in mind the story of the Canadian auto parts jobbing firm where a young sales executive made an error that cost the company a $1 million account. When the executive offered to resign, his boss refused, saying, “You can’t leave the company; I have a $1 million investment in you.”

There are two opposing types of leadership: arrogant, timid leaders and humble, quietly confident leaders. The Oxford English Dictionary defines arrogant as “having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.”

The poverty-stricken years of the Great Depression proved just the right time to launch Parker Brothers’ most successful game: one based on making lots of money. When George Parker played a trial version of Monopoly submitted by the inventor, Charles Darrow, he thought it was too complicated, too technical and took too long to play. A rejection letter that was sent early in 1934 cited “52 fundamental errors”.

A few months later, Parker had eaten crow. He bought the game from Darrow, and rewrote the rules in his trademark clear English. Within two years, two million sets of Monopoly had been sold. Parker, typically, publicly displayed his mocking letter to Darrow as a lesson in humility.

Serve others instead of ourselves

Most of us are in business to make money. That end is worthy and necessary to meet our goal of making a living. But, in order to create a successful business, our motivation must arise from the concept of serving others. It is by serving others that we serve ourselves.

Of all business blunders, this is probably the one that most often leads the way to slow growth or to eventual business failure. Aside from handling various administrative and operational tasks, all other activities need to be centred on serving our clients.

Ask yourself the question: Is what I’m doing serving or going to serve the needs and requirements of my clientele? If the answer is no, you may be wasting time, money, and energy pursuing activities that will have no value. Focus everything you do around serving others and you’ll naturally end up serving yourself as well.

Practice humility

Humility, or the state of being humble, is an absolute must in business. For no matter what we do in life, there will always be times when we cannot control what is happening around us or to us.

By developing an attitude of being grateful in the moment when things are going well, we’ll be able to stand firm when things go wrong. Practicing humility means that we must face our own failures and deficiencies. It also means that we must treat others as we would like to be treated, that we are equal with anyone else.

Humility comes from the Latin word meaning “ground,” and hence literally means grounded. In this sense it means connected to, rather than detached from, the rest of life on Earth.

What we each do affects others. We should not think of our actions as being independent.

We businesspeople have often lost our grounded nature. It is this disconnect, not lack of sympathy or compassion, that businesspeople use as an alibi to ignore the troubles of others who fall victim to personal and business setbacks.

Having pretenses of sympathy and compassion are learned behaviour, not much connected to reality. I will instead aim for humility, not in its ordinary sense, but in its sense of groundedness. In your time of distress and bad luck, I may not be able to say that I share your feelings or that I suffer with you, but I can accept being grounded and humbled.

Mark Borkowski is president of Toronto-based Mercantile Mergers & Acquisitions Corporation, a brokerage firm specializing in the sale of privately owned businesses. He can be contacted at

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