Humility at the Core of Success

“Humility leads to clarity.  Humility leads to an open mind and a forgiving heart.  With an open mind and forgiving heart, I see every person as a superior to me in some way; with every person as my teacher, I grow in wisdom.  As I grow in wisdom, humility becomes more my guide.  I begin with humility, I act with humility, I end with humility.”
– Eric Greitens; Author, Former U.S. Navy SEAL

After a wonderful first year at MIT Sloan and an interesting internship in management consulting, I am, without a doubt, ready to roll up my sleeves and dig into year two of my MBA.  As soon as I stepped back on campus, my heart soared. I couldn’t control it; I was just excited to be back.  MIT Sloan has become such a special place to me, one where the sky is the limit; where everyone wants to impact others and the environment in meaningful, insightful, and transcendental ways; and eternal optimism is not just a mantra, but a way of life.  I breathe a little easier when I’m around other Sloanies, I smile a little more, and I sigh a little less.

I recently had the distinct privilege to be a ‘pilot’– a structured mentor for a group of first year MBA students during their MIT Sloan orientation.  I was asked to share my insights on how to best succeed during the first semester as they learn to operate as a team, and provide recommendations for how they might best flourish as individuals and a collective.

But how do you quantify the ‘secret sauce’ that makes MIT Sloan so unique?  What actionable advice could I offer my classmates that would that would help them through the semester?  Reflecting on my experiences as a U.S. Navy submariner, my summer internship, and my time at Sloan, I realized that, at its core, the defining characteristic of MIT Sloan and every other successful team that I have ever led or worked with, is humility.

Humility is at the core of Sloan culture.  When asked to describe the student body, “humble” is often the first word my classmates offer.  I couldn’t agree more.  Every day in the classroom, I am surrounded by incredible young people who have all positively and irreversibly changed organizations for the better, yet there is never an air of pretentiousness or a feeling of entitlement.  My peers share their stories and insights so that everyone can benefit from their experience, and invite others to challenge their ideas to everyone’s benefit.  Everybody recognizes that the most meaningful part of our MBA education is learning from one another, and to do so, I believe we approach every conversation, case study, and coffee chat with an unrivaled sense of humility.

Humility by itself is not actionable; rather, it is the crucial  catalyst for effective teamwork.  You can’t put a finger on humility alone, but I’ve found that the most effective teams foster the following hallmarks of humility:

  • Spend more time listening than talking.  Every person may hold a different piece of an answer, but it will never come to full fruition if it remains unspoken.  Provide each other time to speak and share ideas.  I’ve found that often the best ideas come from developing and building upon the most creative and seemingly impractical ideas of others.  Say “Yes, and…,” rather than “No.” Share your thoughts, even if you think they’re stupid, too ‘out of left field’, or otherwise irrelevant.  It may spur the conversation just enough to kick off a new, great idea.  With that said, the best teams will also recognize when saying “No” is important to keep a deadline or otherwise redirect a distracted line of thinking.  This, however, should not be taken lightly, and should be used more to redirect rather than eliminate a stream of consciousness.
  • Speak with passion, but temper aggression. Everyone will all have opinions – this is a good thing.  Learning to accept that others may feel or think differently and maintaining a level head during that conversation will lead to a productive outcome; introducing unnecessary emotion will steer team members toward defensive, rather than productive, conversation.
  • Be critical of one another. You come to Sloan to learn and to become a ‘better you,’   bolstered by some of the most intelligent, accomplished young people on the planet.  The better that team is, the better you can become. Help each other become more enlightened, critical thinking individuals by challenging one another. Offer honest and candid feedback, and, on the flip side, be open to criticism.
  • Everybody has a story to tell. There is no such thing weak link, both in the classroom and beyond. Listen with an open mind; what you learn about others and yourself may surprise you.
  • Trust that your teammates’ hearts are in the right place. If you trust one another’s intentions, the occasional angry flare up, missed meeting, or misunderstood feedback will be less of an issue and more of a learning point for yourself and the group.
  • Laugh. Have fun and enjoy this experience.  This is an incredible place; embrace the opportunities, optimism and empowerment it provides.

I shared these insights with my first year classmates and hope that they will find them useful.  As I continue to reflect upon these values, I’ve realized that these points detail some of my greatest takeaways from Sloan.  I can apply these to any situation in business or my community to the betterment of myself and the collective organization.  While still at Sloan, this set of principles enables Sloanies to be successful drivers of global impact.   Armed with a fresh sense of what it means to be a Sloanie, I look forward even more to my second year and exploring what the future holds with a greater sense of purpose and humility.

Brian Kirk

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1 Comment

  1. You’ve really captured all the essence in this subject area, haven’t you?

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