The Thing About Humility

I recently attended a panel discussion on media entrepreneurship. As many panels do, they began by asking each person to introduce themselves.

The first founder, a man, explained he knew nothing about media or tech when he started his business and stumbled along the way to figure out what resonated with people, and as it worked out, just sold his company for $50 million to a major media company.

Ugh, I was annoyed. I could feel much of the audience (many of whom were journalists) were as well. In his over-humility he came off as arrogant and disparaging of an industry many experts have devoted careers to trying to study and revitalize.

The next speaker, a woman, detailed every career step she took since elementary school, a lengthy path littered with Ivy League institutions, high profile organizations, and familiar names, and massive quantitative metrics to show her success.

Definitely more impressive, but I'm sad to admit, only slightly less annoying.

I was certainly much more impressed by the female founder and would champion her and share her story and brand more often than the man, but I found myself wishing she had sounded slightly more like the man, slightly more humble as she explained her founder story to the crowd.

And this is the dilemma of female humility.

Work hard and stay humble. It's a mantra repeated so often by CEOs and motivational speakers as the way to get ahead.

Jim Collins, the writer of the management book Good to Great, describes his highest level of executive achievement as someone who "builds enduring greatness through paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will."

When I searched the internet on the subject I came across several academic studies showing the same - that a humble leader makes for more effective teams and more successful managers.

But with mine and other recent experiences I began to wonder if this is truly adaptable as a philosophy for women in the same way as men.

Women are judged on their experience while men are judged on their potential, Sheryl Sandberg explained in Lean In and many other studies have demonstrated.

Perhaps that's why women more often than not find that being humble leaves them left out.

When someone is humble, we are drawn to them. They feel more like us, more accessible. Too intelligent, too educated, too skilled and the space grows between us.

With humility, we hear, you're like me, you see my point of view. I can root for your success as I'd root for mine.

So what's the opposite?

We start to wonder what you're trying to prove. Is it really true? We look for signs that you're not as good and big and smart as you claim.

I was skiing recently when an old family friend said to me, "I didn't know you could ski so well."

Yes, I've been skiing for 25 years, so why did it surprise him I could make my way down the bumps?

Part of me loved the surprise praise. Knowing that I could come under the radar and surpass his expectations.

It's an experience not unique to the ski slopes for me. As a 20-something woman with an MBA who is a founding employee at a startup, it's an experience I've grown used to.

While I enjoy the look on the face of a man when he realizes I know more about a given subject than he does, I wonder if that same man will think of me when he is looking for some strategic advice, or a new role, or a panel speaker spot.

Rebecca Solnot started from a place of humility when she experienced and coined the term "mansplaining" in her short story detailing meeting a man at a party in the book Men Explain Things To Me.

“So? I hear you’ve written a couple of books.”

I replied, “Several, actually.”

He said, in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice, “And what are they about?”

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?”

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book–with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

....[my friend] had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in.

As you might know, or guess, women tend to be more humble than their male counterparts by nature.

In The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, share studies like the one from Columbia Business School that found that men, on average, rate their performance to be 30 percent better than it is.

A study in the Wall Street Journal of MBA students recommended that men should try to be more humble like women, and women work to be more assertive.

"Female M.B.A.s have a bias to nurturing and team building and male M.B.A.s to a more analytically driven focus on success and independence. My advice is that both should develop more well-rounded skills."

So where does that leave us?

I thought about titling this post Forget About Humility, as I'd expect a feminist story on this topic would be focused.

But I think what is really frustrating here is evidence that a trait more inherent in women makes for more successful leaders, but women who embody that trait more often struggle to reach that level.

Listening to the woman on the panel I had a sinking feeling she got used to introducing her business by listing her own externally recognized accomplishments because she knew she needed to explain to people why they should take her seriously. That's what upset me the most.

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