As a leader, you quickly learn what it feels like to be squeezed between lofty expectations and your own limitations. No leader’s performance is flawless. You can’t see around every corner, and despite your best efforts, your initiatives sometimes miss the mark. No leader is faultless. Sometimes you get angry and short, and you don’t always listen as carefully as you should. Sometimes you need to be reminded to treat everyone with dignity and respect and to recognize and thank others. In other words, you’re human.
The words human and humble both derive from the Latin humus, meaning earth. To be human and humble is to be down-to-earth, with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Interesting, isn’t it, how as you climb the ranks you also climb to a higher floor in the building, getting farther and farther away from the ground? Is it any wonder that the higher you go, the harder it gets to stay grounded?
That’s why it’s so important to think back to the beginning of your career. As Harry Kraemer explains in the following excerpt, that’s the place where leaders can find some of the most important lessons they’ll ever learn. We should all remember where we started. It would also serve us well to have the humility and grace to acknowledge that the amazing people who reside in the cubicles (“cubes”) are the ones who are responsible for most of our successes.
— James M. Kouzes
Excerpted from Chapter 4 of From Values to Action: The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership
Back in the days when I was in the cube, I learned innumerable lessons every day about how the company worked. There were certain things that made perfect sense, and many others that made no sense at all. But when you’re in the cube, you’re supposed to carry out what “those guys” have decided.
My cube mates and I would often wonder what those guys were thinking when they made some of their decisions. Sometimes, the real mystery was what those guys did day in and day out. Our roles were clear: we ordered inventory, paid invoices, or collected receivables. But we couldn’t figure out what our boss or our boss’s boss was doing. It seemed as though they were continuously in meetings, and what was really scary was that they seemed to spend a lot of time meeting with each other instead of visiting customers, suppliers, and other people outside the company.
Often things seemed highly disorganized, and we wondered why those guys didn’t turn to one of us for help. Didn’t they realize that we were the ones who really knew what was going on in the company? For example, if orders weren’t coming in at their usual pace, we clearly knew that the company wasn’t doing well. But it appeared as if those guys were trying to figure out whether they should let us know that business was slow. Of course we knew — but we weren’t sure that they did.
Back in those days, it occurred to me that I might never get out of the cube. So, to amuse myself, I used to make lists of what I would change if I ever got to the next level. I didn’t do this as part of a plan to advance in the company. Rather, I wanted to capture all the things I observed firsthand in the cube, which one day might be of use to me and my colleagues.
One of the items on the list was never to call the staff in on a Friday afternoon and announce that such-and-such needed to be done by Monday morning. Whenever our boss did that, I always wondered where he was on Wednesday or even Thursday. Didn’t he know that this was coming up? Of course there could be an emergency or a sudden development, but these calls happened far too many times at five o’clock on a Friday for this to be a string of extraordinary events. Therefore, I vowed that if I ever became the boss, I would tell my team what projects, priorities, and deadlines were coming up as soon as I knew, so that we could avoid fire drills. That way, the team members could plan their time accordingly. Maybe someone would decide to stay late one night or come in very early the next morning if extra hours were needed. But I wouldn’t tell them so late on a Friday that the only option was to work most of the weekend.