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The Paradox of Humility

Posted on Sunday, September 08, 2019 by Or Mars

Last month at the US Open, Naomi Osaka crushed Coco Gauff decidedly in a 6-3, 6-0 loss. ESPN reports that after the loss, “Coco Gauff walked to her chair on the sideline…and desperately tried not to cry in front of 23,000 fans…(but) the tears started streaming down her face, no matter how hard she had tried to suppress them…Then, seemingly without a moment of hesitation, Naomi Osaka…came over to console her and tell her it was all right to cry.” Later Osaka, in an unusual break in protocol, shared the victor's stand with Gauff and looked for Gauff’s parents in the stands and said, "I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us, and, for me, the fact that both of us made it, and we're both still working as hard as we can, it's incredible. I think you guys are amazing, and Coco, I think you're amazing."

Are our sports heroes “leaders?” Usually not. But due to their talent and fame they are afforded public platforms that give them opportunities to exemplify leadership qualities should they choose to do so. That night Osaka modeled leadership through good sportsmanship and humility. She demonstrated for us what it means to be a good winner. 

Another winner, Moses, of Torah fame, is held out as the example par excellence of a leader who acts with humility. In Numbers 12:3 it reads, “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” It must have been an uncomfortable moment when God asked Moses to write that line down. “You want me to write…what?”

Moses’ humility is evident in the opening line of Leviticus which begins, “Vayikra el Moshe vayidaber Adonai eilav.” (God called to Moses and spoke to him...) The word Vayikra, “God Called (to Moses),” ends with an aleph zeira – a tiny or subscript aleph. It looks like this:


 
If the scribe wrote the rest of the Torah in 12-point font, this mysterious aleph would be in 8 point. The Maharam (1215-1293 Germany) in the name of Rabbi Meir interprets this subscript as an expression of humility.

Moses couldn’t bring himself to internalize that God deliberately and purposefully called to him. In his humility he wanted to write the word Vayikar (Vayikra without the aleph). By dropping the aleph he would have changed the meaning from “God called” to “God happened upon” as though it occurred in a dream thereby diminishing the special-ness of God choosing Moses intentionally.

In a poetic compromise that incorporates God’s wishes (Vayikra) and his own sense of humility (Vayikar), Moses scribes the aleph zeira. He keeps the original intent of the word (“called to”) but uses small form of the letter to remind us of his discomfort in being singled out. 

The leadership quality of humility is fraught with paradox. To be a leader one must have confidence, which stands in contrast to humility. (Even the fact that I would presume that I could write an article about humility ironically reveals a sense of personal confidence!) Exercising leadership is an act of confidence that requires faith that you are just the right person to be intervening in that particular moment. It also requires humility to know that you will not succeed unless you genuinely create space for others to lead as well, and especially to know when you are not the right person to intervene. Your healthy measure of humility will leave room for others to lead, for new ideas, for you to honor others’ abilities and to collaborate.

Good leadership balances just the right amount of humility with just the right amount of confidence. Each new interaction requires a readjustment of the balance depending on what circumstances require of us. Does this moment require that I step up or step back? 

However, many of us are sometimes paralyzed by a crisis of confidence, an overdose of humility. Too much humility is not helpful in our leadership or our personal satisfaction. Who among us has not at times felt the Impostor Syndrome? The term was coined in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. According to psychotherapist Megan Dalla-Camina, the Impostor Syndrome is a psychological term referring to an internal sense of being found out as a fraud because “despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people with Impostor Syndrome remained convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have.” 

In over 20 years of coaching and mentoring amazing leaders, I have seen the Impostor Syndrome rear its destructive head undeservedly time and again. And I have not been immune to it myself. It is rampant and it gets in the way of leaders giving our communities and organizations the gifts that they have within. We need each other as peer coaches to keep the scales of confidence and humility in balance. We need each other to humble us when we are overconfident and we need each other to infuse us with the confidence to lead when we are feeling overly humble. 

This calibration between humility and confidence is famously illustrated in Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha’s teaching that, “Everyone must have two pockets that they can reach into the one or the other, according to their needs. In the right pocket is a piece of paper with the words: ‘For my sake the world was created,’ and in the left: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’" True leadership wisdom means knowing which piece of paper to pull out when. 

At the US Open last month, Naomi Osaka had every reason to crow about her victory. But there was a basic kindness within her, perhaps rooted in the knowledge that on a different day the results could have been different (as they were in the next round a few days later). She humbled herself in her moment of glory to make space for, and therefore honor, her opponent. She may have triumphed over Gauff on that day, but it was her perfectly timed and calibrated humility that makes her a winner. 

Or Mars is the Vice President of The Wexner Foundation. He is an alum of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program (Class 6). Or lives in Columbus, OH, and can be reached here.