Intro: Duration: (01:44)
Opening music jingle & sound effects
Welcome to the Human Capital podcast from GoalSpan, I'm Jeff Hunt. I love the opportunity on each episode to have rich conversations as we unpack the deeply human aspect of work. Today, we're going to talk about both ambition and humility. When these leadership qualities show up separately, instead of together, it can create huge problems.
How many arrogant leaders have you seen that have stepped on people on the way to the top? Unfortunately, we have many examples of this today on the world stage, in both business and politics. Conversely, how many strong leaders do you see that only embody humility without drive? My guess is, not many. As we think about the best leaders, the ones making a significant, positive impact on the organizations they serve and society at large, they have the right balance of both humility and ambition.
These are the leaders people genuinely want to follow. Today I'm honored to speak with an expert in this space, Dr. Amer Casey combined the terms humble and ambitious, and the title of his newly released book called humbitious. Amer is not only an author of several books, but he's also an executive coach, keynote speaker, and professor who teaches graduate-level courses in leadership, public speaking, and strategic planning at Trinity University.
His new book focuses on the traits of high-performing leaders, such as humility, resilience, agility, compassion, and kindness, welcome Amer!
Hey, Jeff. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Topic 1. Who or what inspired you to pursue your career? (01:45)
Thanks for giving up time in your busy schedule to meet with me, I would love to start our conversation by having you give our listeners a thumbnail of your career journey and share a little bit about who may have inspired you along the way.
Yeah, it's my pleasure to be here. I was born in Beirut Lebanon. Lebanon is a small country in the middle east, and I grew up during the Lebanese civil war, which is another story by itself, but more on the educational professional side. My background is in public health. I did an undergrad in public health and a master's in healthcare administration.
But for some reason, I always knew that I wanted to teach and I wanted to teach at the university level, ended up coming to the University of Minnesota to pursue a Ph.D. in healthcare administration and really enjoyed my time there despite the weather, obviously in Minnesota, but had a great experience.
And then after I finished. Took a job at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. So, we moved to Texas in 2003 and I've been here ever since. I love every minute of being at Trinity and working with students and my colleagues. I do all the things that professors do, teaching and research, and go to the meetings and all of that.
But as you mentioned in the introduction I do some things on the side, such as being a professional speaker, I'm an executive coach, and a low coffer to answer the question about who inspired me the most, I'd say that person is my mother. And I'd like to tell a little bit about my mother and her story.
She was the oldest of five and she grew up in Beirut as well. When she finished high school back in 1960, it would have been totally normal if she had waited for her parents to find her a perfectly good husband and for her to stay at home. But instead, my mom pulled her father, my grandpa, that she wanted to go to college, you know, college for a female in the 1960s in the country, in the middle east, that was unusual, but she had big ambitions and she wanted to become a lawyer.
Now, my grandfather resisted a little bit at first, you know, what will people say about us? Stuff like that. But she kept on asking until he finally relented. So my mother went to law school and got her degree in 1965. And you think about it for a minute, a female with a law degree back in the 1960s in Beirut, that was a big deal.
Now, when she graduated, she realized. She didn't want to practice law. It was too dry for her. She had a friend that was working at a large not-for-profit organization that took care of orphans and kids with special needs. And her friend told her, hey, come and work with us. And she started working there as a direct care caregiver, taking care of the kids.
And she realized that working with kids in need just greatly appealed to her humble and empathetic nature. And then she got promoted to supervisor and manager of the unit and then executive director of the whole main campus. And my mother was an excellent manager. I remember going with her to work and seeing her in meetings and observing.
And she probably could have worked anywhere she wanted with her degree. She surely would have made way more money than in a not-for-profit. And probably fewer hours. I mean, the hours that she put at the orphanage were very long. I remember clearly, you know, she worked Mondays to Saturdays from 7:30 AM to 6:30 PM and she worked almost every holiday.
And I used to talk to her about it. Then I would ask her why are you doing this? And she would say my reward for this job is not financial it's in seeing kids who have no one being taken care of feeling safe and feeling happy. And she did all of that while being a great wife and a great mother.
My memory of her is her waking up at 4:30 AM every morning to make sure to prepare meals so that when we came back from school we had dinner ready for us. She did that day in and day out for 50 years until she finally retired in 2015. So, I like to share that, example and role model of my mom, because I believe she was truly humble.
She knew herself very well. She appreciated the kids that she worked with and that she served, but she was never perceived as weak or passive. She was very ambitious. She had high expectations of herself and of others and she held people accountable. But again, no one saw her as intimidating or aggressive.
She was loved and she was respected as a leader. She was someone that I would call a humbitious leader.
Wow. You are truly blessed to have such an inspiration in your life. And I'm just reflecting on my intro, how some of the qualities that I described from your new book, which includes things like resilience, agility, and compassion.
It sounds like she's a very compassionate person. Very hard-working people are really the embodiment of what is going on in your book as well.
Absolutely. Sometimes we have those seeds in us from our parents or from our upbringing and growing up, you don't realize, I'd never thought about her as a great leader and all of that, but later on in my career, when I started studying these traits academically and looking at the research, I went back and I thought to myself, wow, I had that example of leadership right there in front of my eyes throughout my whole.
Topic 2. What does humility mean? Is humility a strength or weakness? (07:58)
Truly remarkable. So, to get a little bit pragmatic Amer, set the table for our conversation and define humility for us, because I think people arrive at this word from different places and definitions. So, what's your definition?
You’re absolutely right Jeff people have different interpretations and sometimes misinterpretations of humility.
So, in the context of leadership, I think of it as consisting of three main building blocks. The first building block is how you understand yourself. The second building block is how you understand your relationship with others. And then the third one is how you understand your place in the universe. So, if we start with the first block, which is how you understand yourself, that includes things such as self-awareness, self-reflection vulnerability.
Because humility first and foremost is about having an accurate view of yourself. Robert Emmons, who is a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis said something very eloquently, he said to be humble is not to have a low opinion of oneself. It's to have an accurate opinion of oneself.
As a humble, smart leader, you should recognize that you are smart. You should recognize that you have skills and abilities. But, you should also recognize that you're not smarter than everyone else or smarter than the collective intelligence of the group that you are leading. You may appreciate that you have expertise in a certain area.
Let's say strategy or finance. But you also acknowledge that you don't know everything about strategy and finance and you still have a lot to learn. So that first block of humility is not about deflating or inflating your abilities for your status. It's about understanding them just the way they are.
So that's the first block. The second block, as we said is about understanding your relationship with others, and this includes aspects such as open-mindedness, appreciation of others, as well as generosity, and how you deal with others. Once you're aware of your personal limitations, then you can be more open to new ideas and ways of thinking and you become more willing to learn from others.
You ask for advice, you seek and listen to honest feedback. And you even solicit contradictory views. You want people to prove you wrong. This quality in the humility literature that I've been studying for the last few years is called teachability. It's the willingness to admit ignorance, appreciate others' contributions, and learn from them.
And it's really about showing up with the mindset that I am not here. To prove myself, I'm here to improve myself. There's a huge difference between how you show up. If you're there to prove yourself all the time versus you're there to improve yourself. And that leads us to the third block, which is understanding your place in the universe.
Now we call that transcendence. So that's a little bit deeper and may sound a little bit out there, a little woo woo. But it's actually very important because the truly humble leaders that I've talked to, and that I've observed, and I've coached are aware of their insignificance in the world. You may have worked with your team, let's say, and you're creating a brand-new product or service, and it's going to significantly increase revenue for an organization for years to come.
And of course, it's a big deal, but in the grand scheme of things, you know, your impact as one human being is always going to be insignificant. And you need to be aware of that. Now, this could be sometimes misunderstood. As it called to surrender, or to laziness, or to link relinquishing action.
But it's not that it's about understanding your small role, but still doing it to the best of your abilities in a humble and ambitious way. Right? You may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but you have an important role to play in your small corner of the universe. I believe it was Gandhi who said, whatever you do in life will be insignificant. But it's important that you do it because nobody else will. So, this would be how I understand humility in the context of leadership.
And it sounds like what you're saying is it's a variable mindset. It's a growth mindset. It's not fixed. It allows teachability and open-mindedness, but I'm also hearing you say, Amer, that it is also not about self-deprecation.
It's approaching humility from a place of strength, not from a place of weakness. So, when we are self-assured and confident, then we have the opportunity to be humble and vulnerable in a way that is much different and more effective and engaging compared with those that are approaching humility from a place that isn't of strength. Is that correct?
I love how you put it. They're approaching it from a place of strength. I couldn't have said it better myself. You're absolutely right about this overlap with the growth mindset, you know, people who are familiar with Carol Dweck's work, remember the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset.
And I believe there's a lot of commonalities between that thinking and the thinking about humility back to the point about proving and improving the people who have the fixed mindset are there in every interaction, every meeting, in every situation in their life, they just want to prove themselves.
Whereas the people with the growth mindset are there because they want to improve. They believe that whoever they're talking to can learn something from that person. And they go into conversations with curiosity and with humility,
Topic 3. "Humbitious" leaders (14:29)
You mentioned some examples of humbitious leaders like Gandhi, what are some other well-known examples of humbitious leaders?
I'm not sure how well known this example is for the audience here in North America. But it's one that I talk about in the book. And it's the example of Jacinda Arden, and for the audience who's not familiar with her, she was elected prime minister of New Zealand back in 2017 and she became the youngest female leader in the world.
Now, typically when a junior leader emerges on the scene, especially a female junior leader. There are doubts there's skepticism from the established order, right? Will she live up to the challenges? They start asking and whispering. And the challenges came at Jacinda Arden thick and fast. A couple of years into her administration.
If you recall, a lone terrorist in the town of Christ church walked into two different places of worship and killed 55 innocent people. I mean, this is New Zealand, this serene land you imagine that you think of green mountains and white sheep and all of that. And it was a shock.
I mean, they were shocked and the world was shocked. Now what I studied is her reaction to the attacks because her reaction was textbook humbitious leadership. First, she showed up with humidity for the families of the victims. She sat down in their living rooms and listened to them and supported them. She showed them empathy and she showed them love. And she did that in private without trying to get attention or credit. But a couple of weeks later when that morning period was over, she went to parliament right away. And she demanded that they pass gun control laws. Now I don't want to get into the politics of gun control laws. That's beside the point.
But the point was that she was so decisive and brave, and the law was signed in a few days. So, we see how she balanced that humility and that ambition. And with that shape and admiration and the respect of the citizens of New Zealand and all over the world. Not long after that COVID-19 hit. Here again, her leadership was put at the desk, and here again, she was truly remarkable with the COVID pandemic.
First, she started with decisiveness and action because there was no time to wait. She swiftly closed the country's borders, impose an immediate lockdown. Again, we can argue with or against these policies, but that's not what we're discussing here. But then she balanced that action and that decisiveness with humility and empathy, as she showed up every single night on live TV and on social media to talk to average citizens and to answer their questions. She assured them that the government had their backs and that it would support them financially as they went through the crisis.
It is no exaggeration to say that New Zealand and Jacinda Arden, passed the pandemic test with flying colors. I remember I was tracking it back in June of 2020. Remember, this is 2020 and New Zealand was the only country in the world with zero active cases of COVID-19 zero, and, she says that one of the criticisms that she's faced over the years is that people think that she's not aggressive enough, or maybe because she's empathetic people think she's weak.
She says, I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be compassionate and strong. This is not an either-or proposition. This is a yes and you can be both compassionate and strong, humble and ambitious.
It seems like it's a matter of connecting and engaging with the people and stakeholders around you, regardless of what organization or country you're running, and doing that with empathy and compassion, and then also being collaborative in your decision-making approach and direct.
So we’re not waiting too long we're actually taking action and combining those two makes for a great leader, it sounds like.
Absolutely. Jeff, you know, you started by saying, they're connecting with the people that you are leading with the stakeholders, right? If you go back to the origin of the word humility, it actually comes from the Latin word, humus, H U M U S not to be confused with hummus.
That's Arabic. So, the Latin word means close to the ground or close to the earth. That's what humus meant for them. And when we take that and apply it within the context of leadership, it fits perfectly well because that leadership style is all about connecting with the people that you are leading.
You don't lead from an ivory tower or from a corner office. You lead from the frontline by being right there, right then with the people that you are leading.
Topic 4. Competency vs Humility. Is it possible to learn how to be humble? (19:43)
Talk a little bit about the contrast of competency versus humility. So, I know you could have a humble leader, but what if the competency is not there?
Yes, that's a very insightful question. And I would say they go hand in hand, you have to be competent first. It's a non-negotiable, you have to know your stuff. You have to have the knowledge, the skills and the abilities, and the areas that you are leading. We said earlier, humble leaders understand their weaknesses and admit their limitations, but they also need to strive to achieve a high level of technical competence.
Again, I believe this is a non-negotiable for leaders because you will lose all your credibility if you show serious flaws in necessary job-related skills, you know, I train people who become healthcare administrators, right? A nurse manager, for example, cannot show humility to their team unless they display a deep proficiency and understanding of the protocols of patient care for example.
You have to know your stuff. And the research supports that, there's one study conducted by Brad Owens at BYU. They looked at this synergistic interaction between humility and competence and the results showed that team members felt free to experiment with new ideas and perform very highly on important tasks.
Only when their leaders were both humble and competent, when the leaders were just humble and not competent, the team members did not perform as well. So, yes, I think it's important to say every now and then, I don't know. To admit that you haven't faced this situation before, but if you're doing that every day and in every situation, you're losing your credibility as the leader.
So I love that question because it's very important to emphasize that you can't be an ambitious leader without showing that competence first.
It feels like the competency is directly correlated to the undergirding of both trust and respect. So, if the person I'm following, this leader has the competency, then only then am I able to trust their decision-making capability and respect them? Is that correct?
That's such a great connection. And it reminds me of that great book called the speed of trust by Stephen Covey, the son. He talks about trust in terms of people's trust, you will trust me if you trust two things about me. If you trust my character and my competence, now, the character part is the humility and ambition we’re talking about.
And it's necessary, but it's not sufficient. You also have to trust my competence that I have the skills to do what I'm saying I'm going to do. And that I've demonstrated that in the past.
Is it possible to learn how to be humble?
Yes, I believe so, otherwise, I wouldn't have written the book and I wouldn't have taken on the role of an executive coach.
However, I would start with this, I would say maybe there's 5% of people out there, 5% that can never learn to be humble. And these are what I would describe as the extreme narcissists and for these people, it's only about me, me, me, me, and nothing can be done with them. But for the other 95% of us, humility is like a muscle.
And I believe that we can develop the muscle and in the book, I highlight several practical and tangible ways that leaders can work on both humility and ambition. The first practice that I would start with is self-reflection with purpose, especially after a major success, right? We all enjoy success in our careers.
It could be a promotion, a salary bump, and an award that you won back on the back from the boss. That's all great. And we have to celebrate these. We have to give ourselves credit. But at the same time, make sure to pause and ponder some hard questions. Some of these questions may sound like, who mentored me? Who gave me my chances? How many people on my team right now are doing such a great job and making me look great?
How did luck contribute to my success? How did market conditions contribute to my success? Again, as you said earlier, this is not about self-deprecating. This is not about deflating your success is just about staying grounded and humble. So, that's one practice I highly recommend. The other one, I'm sure you've heard this one before the audience has heard it.
And obviously, all of this stuff is common sense. It's just not commonly practiced. My second advice is to listen to understand, versus listening to reply when you really think about it, listening to reply is self-centered. If you and I are having a conversation and I'm listening to you so I can reply I can't wait for your mouth to stop moving so I can jump in because I want to show that I know I want to show you my intelligence and all the things that I've done.
It's all about my ego. But when I listened to understand, I take myself out of the equation. It's not about me anymore. It's about you. I put my ego on hold and I truly listen. Again I'm not trying to prove myself to you, but I'm trying to improve myself. I'm trying to learn from you with curiosity and humility.
So, there are many other practices highlighted in the book but these two, I believe, would be a good place to start and we'll have a huge.
It feels like listening to understand is actually giving a gift to the person you're communicating with, because what most people want more than anything else is simply to be heard, correct?
Well, what a great way to put it. Listening to understand is giving a gift to the other person. I love how you articulated that. And I agree a hundred percent.
Topic 5. The benefits of mindfulness in leaders and at work (26:27)
The other thing I'm reflecting on Amer is the advice to pause and the connection to what can arise around self-awareness and even mindfulness, which some people hear the word mindfulness, and they think of this kind of woo woo. I don't want to touch that, but is there a connection there as well?
Yeah, there's this very strong connection there, let's talk about mindfulness a little bit in the context of leadership to kind of like de woo woo the concept, mindfulness is really just about paying attention in the present moment with a clear, calm, and focused mind.
Now, when people think about mindfulness, maybe they have this image of a monk and a red robe, sitting in a cave for days and all of that. And while that's definitely one way to attain mindfulness, it is not the only way, especially not in leadership. You don't need to sit on a mat for hours or to go to a retreat in the mountains to become a more mindful leader.
It's actually way simpler than that. And it's something that we coach leaders on. At the essence of it, mindfulness is about noticing your behavior while it's happening. Let's say, you're in a meeting and there is a tough conversation going on. You're pitching an idea, you're making a presentation, but you know, someone else is dismissing it or they start questioning you or your skills or your knowledge on the issue.
And the debate is getting heated. There is a real threat there and, as you know, the amygdala in our brain perceives it as a threat and is ready to take over it to hijack. So you're about to lose your cool and maybe say something that you will regret later, but that's where mindfulness comes in because you're able to separate yourself from the situation just for a few seconds.
And instead of acting in the movie, you're able to watch the movie, right? Some people use the terminology, instead of being center stage, you can watch from the balcony and you see what's happening objectively. You take a deep breath, you pause, maybe you take a sip of water. You avoid that amygdala hijack.
And then you reply in a calm and intentional way. Now that doesn't mean that you roll over and you allow the other party to walk all over you, but it means that whatever you do and whatever you say is under your control. So, you're absolutely right there is a big connection between that and self-awareness if you think about it.
The last few times that I've lost my cool and that you've lost your cool. If you take the time to think about these times and to reflect on them, what you're going to find is that there's something in common between these times, and this is what we call our triggers, and my triggers are going to be different than your triggers, different than other people's triggers.
I'll share with me, for example, if I go back and look at the situations that have threatened me in the past, or that I felt like I lost my cool I said things I later regret. The one thing in common between all of them was that I perceived a lack of respect from the other person.
And the other person could be a colleague at work or my teenage kids or whatever it is, there's something in common, but I needed to have the self-awareness to know what my triggers are. And once I had that, which was not something I reached on my own, this was something that someone coached me on.
I started to think, okay, when I'm in that situation, I can be mindful that it's happening right there, right then. So, someone says something which I perceive as lacking in respect towards me. I don't react. I pause again. I may take a deep breath. I may take a sip of water. I know that I'm being triggered, but I collect my thoughts, and only then after I calmed down after I've seen the movie, then I reply.
This type of mindfulness seems to help us migrate away from a reactive state to one that's much more thoughtful.
That's exactly what it is. Sometimes people misinterpret that as showing up as a robot and it was as if we're advising people to leave all emotions out of work and all of that. And that is the total opposite of what we're saying.
You a hundred percent still need to bring your emotions to work, but you are controlling the emotions. You're not allowing the emotions to control you. So after that, and after that mindfulness, you can still reply in an angry way, right? But it's anger under control and it's very different it looks very different from anger that is not under control as we both know.
One is productive and the other is not. Okay. I'm going to ask you some math questions right before we switch into lightning round. So, if you had to come up with one word for the following equations, what would they be?
The first one is Ambition - Humility =?
Bulldozing jerk. Two terms, sorry.
That works. Humility – Ambition =?
Humility and minus ambition. I would say selfless pushover
And Humility + Ambition =?
Humbitious with long-lasting results
Topic 6. Lighting round questions (32:26)
All right Amer let's shift into some lightning-round questions. I'd like to just ask you some questions that you haven't heard you give me the top mind answer, but the first one I think will be easy for you. It's what are you most grateful for?
Very grateful for family, for health, for peace of mind. Very grateful, right now to be talking to you, I believe in gratefulness and gratitude. That can be the big things like I just started with, but it also can be gratitude right there at the moment, this opportunity to be having this stimulating conversation right now, and the opportunity to have my message heard by your listeners. I'm grateful for that, right here, right now.
What is the most difficult leadership lesson you've learned over your career?
I'd have to say I have to go back to what we were just talking about, which is to not react at the moment. And I've been guilty of doing that in the past. And I would think of the leadership concepts, not just in the professional life, but in our personal lives. I believe we are also leaders in our personal lives. I like to think of myself as a leader with my kids, for example, I have two teenage kids and in some aspects, I lead them in other aspects they lead me. Some of those difficult lessons I've learned have been in situations where I wasn't mindful where I wasn't patient enough with myself and with others.
And maybe I reacted in a harsh way or set things that I regretted later. And it's because we tend to be on autopilot most of the time. So, if we're trying to distill the principle behind that, I'd say the principle is intentionality. Is to be intentional, about how you show up as a leader, whether in your personal life or in your professional life and not just rely on instinct.
To justify it and say, oh, it's my personality I just react. That's my personality. That's how I do think that's not how our personality that's some, that's a bad habit we fall into and we can change that.
That's an excuse, isn't it? Who is one person you would interview if you could live or not?
Right now I would definitely, they could just send Amer as an interviewee, Angela, Merkel, if possible, you know, the German chancellor, who just stepped away last year. So maybe she has a little bit more time now. So I'll be more than happy to interview her. She's another great example of humble leadership.
And then if I'm going to add one more from here in the US I would say coach Greg Popovich from the San Antonio Spurs.
Great choices. So I, I'm going to ask this next question, but I'm going to give you my answer first, which is kind of ironic. What's your top book recommendation? I'm highly going to recommend Humbitious to our listeners. I'm in the middle of reading it and I love this book, I have a books list on my podcast website, and we're adding that to the podcast website. So, if you go to human capital to the podcast website and you look at my books list, it'll be there. But Amer what are your top book recommendations?
The funny thing about this is that every time I'm asked this question, I give a different answer because it's so hard to just stick with one because you think you have one and then you read others and you're like, actually, no, this one.
So, this is going to be different from how I've answered this question in the past. But right now I would say there's a book called the top five regrets of the dying. And it sounds a little bit morbid. The title sounds a little bit morbid but the idea from the book is there is this nurse whose job was to take care of people who had chronic diseases and who were in the, it's called the palliative care nurse.
And she lived in Australia and she did that job for years and years. And what she would do in those last few days was that she tried to make the people as comfortable as they can be. And she would have these deep conversations with them. And what you noticed was that they all had regrets. So, she synthesizes that into five top regrets of the dying, and I'm not going to ruin it for people.
I let them read the book, but one of those regrets. That the people thought I wish I hadn't worked as hard as I did. I wish I had spent more time enjoying my family, my friends, my hobbies, and all of that. And that's something that I take to heart because we all are trying to be successful professionals.
You obviously want your podcast to be the top podcast. I want my book to be the top book. And sometimes when we are so narrowly focused on these things, we forget the important things in life. So, when you hear the people who are on their deathbeds talking about these things, it just had that impact on me.
And this is a book that I’m now recommending for a lot of people, it's not an easy read, you know, reading the stories of people on their death beds. It's very emotional. It's very strong, but I felt like it was a message I needed to hear.
Great book and great piece of advice. So Amer if you had to summarize our talk, what would you leave our listeners as the most important takeaway?
Well, I would first start by saying that your questions were excellent. I really enjoyed the questions. They were very insightful. The summary of what we said is I remind people that in leadership, humility is a strength, not a weakness. And it's a superpower when combined with ambition.
Thank you so much for joining me and bringing your wisdom to the podcast today.
It was my pleasure. I enjoyed it and I appreciated it.
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