A Heart Held Humble Levels and Lights the Way

Observations on executive training & executive rest

John Halamka, M.D., president, Mayo Clinic Platform, and Paul Cerrato, senior research analyst and communications specialist, Mayo Clinic Platform, wrote this article.

Humility is not a very popular word among business and health care executives. Often considered a sign of weakness, this personality trait is not often applauded in executive training programs or boardrooms. A revealing piece in Harvard Business Review sums up the problem in its title: “If Humility is So Important, Why Are Leaders So Arrogant?” The article goes on to discuss the push among HR consulting firms and psychology experts to develop the H Factor, a combination of honesty and humility. Despite this celebration of humility, “it flies in the face of daily headlines in the Wall Street Journal and the realities of our business and political cultures,” says the HBR article.

Several management experts have tried to explain this paradox. Edgar Shein from MIT Sloan School of Management posits that the prevailing mindset about managers is that life is a competition and being a successful leader is all about getting results at all costs, which in turn requires telling others what to do. There’s little room for humility and gentleness in that formula for success.

Which brings us to the blog’s title: a heart held humble levels and lights the way. It’s a quote from Along the Road, a song by Dan Fogelberg. It suggests that informed humility accomplishes two goals: It levels us, i.e., it provides balance in making decisions, and it lights up the path as we move forward to accomplish our mission. At the Mayo Clinic Platform, the pursuit of balance and enlightenment is accompanied by complete transparency about our goals, dreams, and fears. That certainly requires humility.

At some health care organizations, executive coaching is stigmatized. If a leader falters or is assigned to a role beyond competency (the Peter Principle), a coach is assigned. We have a different notion. If we're charged with leading a new team on a new journey with new rules — the COVID new normal — we must embrace the best of what collaborators and partners have to offer. We think bringing on an external coach as a sounding board during the next six months of great change will be empowering to us all. The idea is that we'll meet with the coach twice a month to present our strategy, structure, staffing, and process ideas to benchmark against the experience of high performing organizations and teams. It's likely we'll receive feedback and inspiration that exceeds our own life experiences.  At the same time, we'll understand more about how we can improve efficiency, communications, and decision-making. The process will be very personal, and we’ll have to grow as people and leaders. Our life experience has shaped our personalities and our approach to problems, and although it has served us well in the past, we’ll need to focus on how to we change to lead the team through the challenges ahead. 

Our life experiences have taught us to take accountability for every situation. As we build a scalable platform team, it will be more important to orchestrate and delegate, replacing individual efforts with repeatable processes. Building a sustainable organization that scales from dozens of projects to hundreds requires leadership evolution. Coaching can help with such polishing, especially when working at an accelerated pace. Such coaching is not only seldomly disclosed, but also rarely documented. However, we’ll keep diaries of what we learn each month and how it changes our behavior.  We'll share that broadly. Some may suggest that this exposes our vulnerabilities — that’s a good thing! 

Along the road to informed humility, we also recognize the need for rest. Despite what many executives imagine, the human body and mind are not perpetual motion machines. The workaholic CEO may be admired in much of corporate America, but as health professionals, we know better. The evidence demonstrating the detrimental effects of overwork on the brain and immune system is overwhelming; it would be irresponsible for us to ignore it. The American Institute of Stress calculates that 77% of Americans “regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress.” The problem is so prevalent in society, there is even a medical specialty devoted to it: psychoneuroimmunology, which rests upon one simple truth: Thoughts have physiological consequences. And ignoring this truth may not have immediate repercussions for executives, but its insidious effects eventually take their toll. Solutions abound: Stress management techniques like mindfulness meditation, walks in the woods, crossword puzzles, long, hot baths, music — each of us responds to different modalities.

After all these decades, Fogelberg’s lyrics still offer sage advice to executives who want to inspire others and serve as role models:

Along the road
Your steps may tumble
Your thoughts may start to stray
But through it all a heart held humble
Levels and lights your way

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