“Let me ask you a question.”

I wanted to pick the brain of the man across the table from me. He is a vice president of a well-respected global company with years of experience leading and training at the highest level within the corporate world.  

“There are two 40 year-olds in middle management at the same corporation. In 20 years, one will be the CEO and the other will still be in the same middle-management role. Based on your observations in business, what is most likely the differentiating factor?”

As I finished my question, he was finishing a sip from his now room-temperature hazelnut latte.  He wasn’t even able to put the cup on the table before answering the question.

“A humble willingness to learn.”  

Of all the characteristics, skills, and degrees he could have named to distinguish the two hypothetical managers, he chose that one. 

The manager who will not evolve into a leader is the one in the room who always gives you reasons why an idea won’t work, why a proposed change isn’t possible and why it’s bad timing for a strategic shift. 

He will be the one who never attends development classes that aren’t mandatory and has never initiated a conversation with his supervisor about learning a new skill or getting a new degree or certification.

However, the humble manager is a relentless and agile learner. She will embrace change. New processes will not intimidate her. She will happily explore new strategies and willingly discuss re-aligning fundamental assumptions.

She will be a reader. She may pursue an extra degree. She will ask to attend conferences and seminars to gain new skills. She will constantly be making herself more knowledgeable and more valuable.  She will not be intimidated by others at the table who have more expertise than her.  

This manager knows the upside down business idea: Humble learning is a sign you have wisdom, not proof that you lack it.

The author of Proverbs understood this when he wrote “The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.” (Proverbs 10:14)

And he restated the same point when he said “wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding.” (Proverbs 10:23)

Be humble and always be learning.

It will lead to more opportunity, more security, and more joy.

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