Catastrophic flooding in Alberta and a recent conversation at a social services mission in Toronto made me reflect last week on luck and leadership.
As leaders, we often think that we are in perfect control, and that we have, through dint of hard work and good behaviour, become the people we are today. When viewing others from a far, we think that their status in life, either as permanent members of the underclass or merely minions in the office slogging it out, is something they earned, something they deserved.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed the manager of a social enterprise at a Toronto mission for a case study I was writing. To start off the interview, I asked him how he came to work at the mission. I got the surprise of my life. He is a recovering substance abuser, who originally came to the mission to get something to eat. Over time, he started to volunteer at the mission, then started to volunteer in the social enterprise, got a job there, and is now its manager. He looked and sounded just like me. He wasn’t a skid row bum, smoking crack. He was a middle class professional, living in a condo in downtown Toronto, making an excellent living before he experienced life on the street.
I had spent a few days at the Mission. Before meeting the social enterprise manager, I was feeling pretty smug about the people who were being helped in this mission. That couldn’t happen to me, after all, I come from a stable, happy family, no one has substance abuse problems, no one is on welfare, everyone is well educated, has a job, works hard. I didn’t have a physical or cognitive handicap, I didn’t have psychological problems. But after meeting the social enterprise manager, a light bulb went on. IT COULD HAPPEN TO ME. I wasn’t unique, special or deserving. I wasn’t better than “THEM”. It could happen to me.
And it is happening to many people in Alberta right now, as floods are destroying entire towns and many lives. The water is not discriminating – it hits the wealthy communities right along with the poor ones, good people and bad people, hard working people and sloths. It happened to them. It could happen to you.
And thus our carefully constructed worlds, in which we feel safe, come crashing down. It is pretty scary to realize that we are really very small and vulnerable. We don’t really have control, rather the world controls us. And, just because we’ve been successful doesn’t mean that we have earned it. A lot of luck goes into our place in life. J. Andrew Morris, Céleste M. Brotheridge and John C. Urbanski conducted a study on humility a few years ago. They noted that truly humble people recognize their relative importance in the grand scheme of things. They get that in the context of both history and the universe, we are just living on a little speck, just like in Horton Hears a Who.
As leaders in all contexts, we need to remember our relative impermanence in the world, our relative lack of control and our relative inability to change much. We need to remember how much of our success is due to good luck. We need to be accepting of others, not judge them for their failures, but remember, “There but for the grace of God go I”.
Morris, Brotheridge and Urbanski (2005). Bringing humility to leadership: Antecedents and consequences of leader humility. Human relations. Volume 58(10): 1323–1350. DOI: 10.1177/0018726705059929