Grey Poupon. Evian. TED Talk.

Posted on July 21, 2023

A water tower with the words "City of Humble" painted on the side. In the foreground are magenta flowers.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Dr. Sarah Story, Lead Content Strategist at Color Health. Find her on LinkedIn, Medium, or Instagram (and Threads!) – not Twitter, unless you want to read some ancient tweets.

What I’m Reading: Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond. It’s definitely a dense read, and I’ve had to go back and forth while reading something lighter (Emily Henry, anyone?) but it should be required reading for anyone who lives and/or loves America. Desmond always strikes the perfect balance between teaching and storytelling. I want to be him when I grow up.

What I’m Watching: I’ll tell you what I’m NOT watching anymore – my umpteenth rewatch of Man Men, because it was devastatingly wrenched from Amazon Freevee. I am not going to be subscribing to yet another streaming service (at least until the writers and actors are paid fairly! Even then, something else has gotta give in the budget.)

What I’m Listening To: I’ll admit it. I’m 42 years old and absolutely obsessed with the song vampire by Olivia Rodrigo. Rake me, shame me, I’m OK. I’ll live just fine belting out notes I have no business attempting in my car with all the windows up and my Apple Watch warning my elder-millennial ears that my environment is too loud.

The airport was thick. Thick with people, thick with heat. I had found the lone available bar seat to perch, waiting for a flight that would inevitably be delayed. Fat storm clouds hung in the skies above the parked planes, and the constant whirring of auxiliary fans created a constant hum that was far from soothing, even if it blew everyone’s hair as if we were Beyonce herself. My glass of overpriced Prosecco was sweating, the condensation forming a ring of moisture on the bar. Every time I would set the glass down, I would move it an inch, so that the resulting imprint looked like the Olympics.

When the sweet, overwhelmed bartender asked me if I wanted a 6 ounce or 9 ounce pour, I thought about the folded paper in the tote bag at my feet: the anonymous feedback from 100 strangers who had watched a presentation I made the day before. I gulped, took the 9 ounce option, and decided to have a detox week once I got home.

I felt very mature asking for a copy of the feedback once I left the event. Look at me, ready to improve! Surely I was so confident and thick-skinned that I would only benefit from constructive criticism. Surely I was so secure in my worth that even compliments on my work would be accepted gracefully, instead of fueling a ravaging need for external validation. I was fanning myself now with the three neatly stapled, double-sided sheets. My hair stuck to my neck and I could feel sweat traveling down my body and pooling on the seat, much like my poor glass of struggling wine. I looked up at the TV, which was showing a Dog Agility competition on ESPN. Those dogs were probably pretty good at taking in feedback, but they would also do anything for a piece of a hot dog. I guess we’re not too different.

A dog jumping over a hurdle in a dog agility contest.

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is that thing where you feel as if you’re seeing something way more than usual. You notice something once, then you start to notice it everywhere. (This is not to be confused with the Mandela Effect, where a whole generation collectively convinced ourselves that there really was a movie starring Sinbad about a genie called Shazam.) Recently, I’ve been Baader-Meinhof-ing on the concepts of pride and humility. It’s everywhere, and not just in Sunday morning sermons. It’s a topic of conversation in Slack channels and comedy podcasts… in Facebook groups about Peloton and New York Times articles about office culture. I’ve felt chased by it, which leads me to believe that this selective attention is a gentle nudge towards getting real about it.

I want to be a humble leader. I want to be a strong leader. I want to be kind, but not soft. I want to be a step-up, not a doormat.

This feels very counterculture to say. As a woman, this also feels incredibly dangerous to say, since I’ve been conditioned in male-dominated spaces to over-exert my ego in an attempt to be taken seriously. Leaders command respect, and the only way to do that–according to a limited cultural worldview–is to instill fear and bark orders. Leaders are supposed to be the smartest person in the room at all times, the one their subordinates look to in awe at their obvious wisdom.

But I’ve been the subordinate. What the leader saw as awe on my face was actually incredulity. It was all an act, my veneer of subservience molded by fear of retribution. Why would I want to subject anyone to that life? How could I ever expect to keep a staff together if I acted like that?

I’ve done a ton of deep reflection on my journey towards humble leadership. I always considered myself a humble person, but I was wrong. I am sometimes an insecure person, but let me tell you this as loudly as I can type it:


In fact, insecurity is just pride in a different costume. We think “gosh, I should be higher up in my career, but I’m not” or “no one listens to me or respects me” or “I’m ashamed of my bank account.” Underneath all of this is the unspoken assumption that we deserve more just by the very act of existing. We’re staking our worth to these culturally-approved metrics of success (see also: my last post) because we are convinced we belong in some sort of bracket. In the same vein, confidence is not arrogance. Confidence in your gifts, your calling or your principles is possible without believing you are better than anyone.

Also worth yelling: no one is allowed to humble you. That is just called oppression, abuse or exclusion. Humility comes from within.

There’s an overused quote from Rick Warren that’s overused for a reason: “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” In that spirit, I wrote three big things down to remember as I keep reaching for humility.

  1. Serve others. Find a way to meaningfully help someone today. It could be a coworker, a partner, your kid, your neighbor. Don’t overthink it. Serve others how they need to be served, not how you want to be served.
  2. Lift others. Stop fighting to be seen. Instead, exude the kind of light that shines on the good works of others. Don’t worry about getting credit. Be the first person to point out others’ contributions, especially those folks who always get shouted over. The best, most respected leaders I’ve ever seen are the ones who dole out acknowledgments, not those who are perpetually patting their own back.
  3. Love others. Even, and especially, the ones who are hardest to love. Shift from “what’s wrong with them?” to “what happened to them?” Dig deep for empathy. Loving others sometimes means putting up healthy boundaries and loving from a distance.

Could this approach mean that, in my lifetime, I will never reach the pinnacle of leadership in environments that look down on humility? Yes. Does this make me angry? Of course. Can I change that? Not all at once. And I accept that reality. I accept and own my privilege, too. We all do what we have to do to survive, to feed our families. If that means you have to play the game, then play it well. But, if there were so many of us humble souls wandering board rooms, city hall conference rooms and classrooms that no one could avoid us…. well… wouldn’t that be nice?

All of this was on my mind in the hellfire of the airport as I considered reading the anonymous feedback. I had gone into my talk committed to humility and honesty, freely flowing with vulnerability and OK with saying “I don’t know” if someone asked me a question I didn’t have an answer to. I was passionate about justice, but I also made jokes about my divorce. I was me, but slightly more polished. I didn’t wear heels, but I did blow out my hair.

And with all that humility on display, guess what? Some people still didn’t love it. Some comments said I lacked executive presence or professionalism. Some said they couldn’t take me seriously. Here’s the thing, though. We will never satisfy all the people all the time. If I had gone in there as prideful and arrogant as [fill in your favorite blowhard here], the same number of people would have hated that too. We’re never everyone’s cup of tea, so why not enjoy living with yourself while accepting the fact that some proportion of any group of people won’t like your vibe?

Even the most painful feedback in that stack had some shavings of truth. I can be a bit brash, and I can work to tone it down without compromising my beliefs. I can think more intentionally when I respond to a tough question, so that I don’t misspeak and offend. If I only read those comments with pride in my heart, I couldn’t see opportunities for growth. I would have missed some great lessons wrapped in a spiky exterior. Humility isn’t constraining me, it’s expanding me.

Eventually my flight boarded. I asked the bartender to throw away my copies of the feedback, along with the 300 cocktail napkins I had used to mop my face. I didn’t toss it because I was afraid, I tossed it because I know myself well enough to predict that I’d be obsessing over it all week and flipping through again to seek out validation. I jotted down things to work on, smiled at the kindness, and moved on, ready to fly to the next stop on a never ending journey of getting better, one sweaty airport at a time.

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