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14 Mar. 2013 | Comments (0)

When I was a boy, my sensei often shared Gichin Funakoshi’s parable, “A Man of Tao and a Little Man.”

As it is told, a student once asked the difference between the two. The sensei replied, “It is simple. When the little man receives his first dan (degree or rank), he can hardly wait to run home and shout at the top of his voice to tell everyone that he made his first dan. Upon receiving his second dan, he will climb to the rooftops and shout to the people. Upon receiving his third dan, he will jump in his automobile and parade through town with horn blowing, telling one and all about his third dan.”

The sensei continued, “When the man of Tao receives his first dan, he will bow his head in gratitude. Upon receiving his second dan, he will bow his head and shoulders. Upon receiving his third dan, he will bow to the waist and quietly walk alongside the wall so that people will not notice him.”

The story had many meanings, but chief among the lessons was that as one acquires new skills and abilities, he or she should remain humble, thoughtful, and rooted in the knowledge that current success was dependent on others and that there is always more to learn.

Applying the Lesson

In today’s competitive corporate landscape, I wonder if it is possible for a leader to truly embody this principle, exercising an ability to actively promote team efforts and organizational accomplishments while not belittling his or her own role in that success.

Some will say this is a naïve notion, noting that one’s work rarely speaks for itself. After all, how can you be promoted if you fail to self-promote? The concern seems justified when you hear tales of a politically savvy employee navigating his way to the corner office while a less gregarious counterpart remains trapped in obscurity. I’m sure it happens, but in the end I believe substance trumps style. Truth, after all, is a hard thing to hide.

As talent managers, I think it important that we focus on the whole of people. Performance is critical, but how results are achieved is just as important. I’ve been lucky enough to know a few humble leaders. They are continuously grateful for where they are and have a healthy hunger to achieve more, not for themselves necessarily, but for the betterment of the team, the company, and the customer. This hunger nourishes the organization, and, in turn, drives others to similar success. The “little men,” on the other hand, often trade gratitude for entitlement, seek to conquer rather than nourish, and end up corrupting that which is in their sphere of influence. Sometimes it’s a team or project, and, in other cases, it’s a frighteningly large purview.

As we rebuild from a game changing recession, as we muddle through the wake of much publicized corporate bravado and arrogant decision making, it’s more important than ever to look for leaders who can truly help employees uncover their best.

Finding Humble Leaders

They’re not difficult to spot. The characteristic comes across in the interview as they balance “we” and “I” language when describing accomplishments. It is underscored in their employee engagement results, for they are the people for whom others want to work. It is also apparent when looking at the bottom line, for these types of leaders are those with whom customers long to do business.

Humble leaders aren’t restricted by a need to always be right. They readily recognize and openly acknowledge their shortcomings. They listen, they learn, and they are unafraid to bring other voices to the table to ensure the right results. These actions foster collaboration and drive out groupthink, which, in turn, often produces better ideas.

The teacher I mentioned had a habit of inviting practitioners of other styles to her dojo. The classes were free, but there was a “catch.” She instructed everyone to remove their belts (rank) before entering, following her example. Freed of hierarchy, assumptions, and expectations, the knowledge flowed easily among the participants. These classes were by far the most productive and meaningful lessons of my youth. I learned much from my colleagues in those days, but while there were many teachers, we never lost sight of the leader. She was there, learning with us, and smiling slightly at the growth she orchestrated, and we only later realized what was occurring.

Does your organization support this type of leadership and collaborative learning?


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  • About the Author:Tim Toterhi

    Tim Toterhi

    Tim Toterhi is an organization development professional based in North Carolina. He began his career in strategic sales and transitioned to HR via learning and development. Over the past 15 years, he …

    Full Bio | More from Tim Toterhi


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