In Search of Humility

06/07/2012 09:51 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

As graduation season comes to a close, the papers fill with memorable snippets and messages from presidents and pundits invited to give advice to graduates dreaming big things.

Top ten lists are always popular in Commencement speeches, but the best speakers understand it's not a day for complex messages. At his Barnard address, Obama focused on perseverance as the key to success, bolstered by anecdotes from his wife, mother-in-law and Secretary of State.

My web search suggests the key message I am looking for today isn't a big seller at graduations -- or for that matter in Washington or on Wall Street -- but I think is a gateway to success: start with humility.

While out of vogue in both politics and business, the wisdom of the ages is on my side. Try this from Roman Catholic St. Augustine in the 4th C:

"Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility."

I like it. Why humility? We have big challenges facing us. We won't make progress without the heft of global institutions capable of both innovating and implementing at scale. And I mean real scale -- the kind that NGOs can only fantasize about. Whether we are talking about the need for capital investment in the U.S., or resource scarcity on the global stage, big business, alongside government, will need to be at the table to make progress on the problems that are likely to determine the health of our economy and our well-being in the future.

To drive change in any enterprise requires vision, clearly. And the entrepreneurial skills that business schools love to talk about are also important. Perseverance is indeed needed. But team-work and collaboration are the hallmark of breakthroughs that drive systemic change, and leading means subordinating the ego to the group.

If you are still moving up the ladder of success -- and aspire to be one of those change agents inside business, then listening is more important than talking. You will need mentors who understand the culture better than you do, who know where the decision-making power resides in the firm, with access to expense budgets and investment capital.

Eventually, you will need to build bridges to other departments that hold some of the keys to the kingdom. You may even need to work with competitors -- to amass the broad market and supply chain that is critical to real change, and sustained success.

Most important: you are not likely to receive a reward for your effort. If your ideas and prototypes go viral, it will be because someone else adopted them as their own. This from novelist and poet, Emily Bronte, writing mid 19th century: "If I could, I would always work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results."

Compare this essential value with the kinds of attributes that are celebrated by nonprofits and foundations today who use prizes and awards to celebrate singular achievement over teamwork. Individuals make a difference, but past or future success -- if it is meaningful and reaches scale -- can never be credited to one individual.

Give me humility.

The speech that came closest in my search was delivered at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley in 2010. Rich Lyons, Dean of Haas, talks about innovation, but he also emphasizes the need for confidence without attitude. A guiding principle of the school, it is described thus: "We make decisions based on evidence and analysis, giving us the confidence to act without arrogance. We lead through trust and collaboration."


This week we announce our next class of Aspen First Mover Fellows who are driving change from within big business. Humility is a characteristic we look for. Learn more about them here.