2012 Series 007 – Growth

Ambition x Humility = Growth

Without ambition, there’s no impetus for growth.

But without humility, growth is not sustained.

Recent history reveals many companies that are thought to be successful, but due to what is arguably, a lack of humbled ambition, these companies went bust, where these bankrupt companies stop being useful for their stakeholders.

For an organization to be useful for its stakeholders, the organization needs sustained growth.

Sustained growth comes from ambition and humility.

“High performance organization” are crafted and sustained by leaders with strong ambition and yet possessing many degrees of humility in greater quantity.

“Low performance organization” have leaders that are strong or weak in ambition yet possesing only superficial humility.

In the context of value creating organization, where organization is nothing more than a group of people, it’s important to speak about “value creating people”

  1. Humility

There are several layers of humility; the acquisition of each in greater quantity will increase the sustainability of growth.

  1. Superficial humility

Superficial humility is the display of humility through acts and words of deference and respect.

Superficial humility allows a modicum of growth, and the extend of growth allowed by superficial humility relies on the culture where one life or do business.

In most parts and context in Indonesia, superficial humility is expected, desired, and rewarded with reciprocal superficial humility. Failure to show superficial humility is, at the very least, frowned upon.

So, within this culture, many people learned the need and value of displaying superficial humility. I’ve experience many trainings where although the subject said “communication”, “teamwork”, “togetherness”, the real subject is superficial humility.

Superficial humility is not wrong, or bad. It is very good. It’s always good to treat your colleagues with respect, being humble and kind to your subordinates could give you an aura of benevolence, and superficial humility is required when meeting business partners, regardless of from which culture your or they come from.

But superficial humility is just that, superficial.

The extent of growth that is allowed by having superficial humility is equally shallow.

For example, I’ve had a colleague who showed superficial humility in abundance, he showed it in such abundance that I cringe when he extend me his superficial humility, I find it all too much.

But some of his clients, his superior, and some of his colleagues love his superficial humility, they give him business, they speak of him in high regard, and is willing to work with him.

He achieved growth.

There’s only one problem, the man was unteachable.

After a while, he failed to meet his numbers. Rather than taking a step back, reflect, and investigate what’s wrong, his role in it, and what he can do to fix it, he chooses to delay reckoning. Attempts to discover root causes were met with deflection, suggestion on potential key issues were greeted with polite yes but no action, call to change were responded with questions on the asking’s party credibility to speak about the colleagues field of work.

My colleague did not lack superficial humility, and it brought him growth.

What he lack is Intellectual humility, that, halted his growth.

In my very short career, I met this kind of person than once, superficial humility is in abundance in Indonesia, and thus, so is stunted organization that are led by people of high or low ambition but possessing only superficial humility.

  1. Intellectual humility.

Intellectual humility means possessing the desire to learn, even at the expense of one’s ego.

Ego is the casualty of non-superficial humility; as we explore more layers of humility, we will see that it is ego, in increasing depth, that is being sacrificed.

Intellectual humility encompasses not only intelligence, but also knowledge, experience, assumptions.

A person with intellectual humility is teachable in a wide sense of the word. He is willing to put his intellectualism to the test. The need to find the best idea, solution, answer, truth, is more important for him than the comfort and false adulation of being right.

A man with intellectual humility would humble his intellectualism for the sake of getting the best answer for himself or his organization.

For example. Steve Jobs is not a man of superficial humility. But he is a man with great intellectual humility. His ability to create magic comes from his willingness to learn from disparage fields over which he had no experience. Many know how to create computers, but computers that are beautifully designed and are intuitive to use, that is a testament to Job’s willingness to learn, absorb, and implement learning from different fields. As a result, the world discovered new ways to interact with technology and Apple’s shareholder value was increased.

Does that mean Superficial Humility is not important? No, it certainly would not hurt Apple’s performance if Steve Jobs had shown more Superficial Humility, and his character would have enjoyed a less mixed opinion. But Steve Jobs happen to work in a culture where superficial humility is relatively less important than in Indonesia, so he can, so to speak, get away with it.

But the reverse is not true, that you can achieve greatness in Indonesia just by relying on superficial humility. While Superficial Humility’s value is context dependent, Intellectual Humility is not.

I have the chance to work for an Indonesian company where its senior managers, 95% Indonesian, are rational actors who are more than willing to questions their ideas. They pursue the best answer, having sufficient self-security to be not concerned if the best answer is different from their own ideas. The company, until today, maintained its dominant position and due to network effect it had created, likely to maintained it.

So although they are Indonesians, live in Indonesia, these senior managers is able to rise themselves up to go beyond superficial humility, and because they can reach intellectual humility, the organization that they lead is likely to achieve sustained growth. They create what I called “High performance organization”

Due to limited space, I will discuss the next 2 level of humility in brief.


  1. Moral humility.

Moral humility is the willingness to subject one’s ego to accepting that there’s something called good and right and then, set oneself to do what is good and right.

Moral humility is required for someone to be a person of integrity.

I would argue that source for lack of integrity, is the lack of moral humility. Since if one doesn’t feel the need to subject him/her self to what is good and right, why do it?

The collapse and damage reputation of several American large bank’s is an example of the consequence of moral humility. The bankers might have intellectual humility, they are smart and rational and can device profitable schemes, but it’s the apparent lack of moral humility that turned people away from the world of banking.

Due to the lack of moral humility, the profit that their banks’ receive is not sustainable.

  1. Existential humility.

Existential Humility is the willingness to surrender’s one’s life for the pursuit of a goal that benefits other people.

A person with existential humility see him/herself as an existence that needs to be satisfied, that is not why he exist.

In existential humility, one sees one life as a vessel that is directed towards a destination that will benefit other people. And he see physical needs, to eat, to drink, to rest, as nothing more than a way to maintain the well-being of that vessel.

Existential humility can lead to massive and sustained impact, but not necessarily in a monetary sense.


After we discuss the 4 layers of humility, it can become clear than when we speak about ambition, we have to ask,

What kind of ambition?

Ambition that fills the need of a person or organization that requires superficial humility?

Ambition that fits the level of insight and innovation afforded by people with intellectual humility?

Ambition that views moral humility as its key decision factor?

Or ambition that purse sustained impact for other people?

In any of the 4 types of ambition, ambition can be small or big. The types of ambition don’t determine its size, but it determines the sustainability of its achievements. Having said that, we have to recognize that small people dreams small things, big people dreams big things.

People with small ambition, usually have small ambition because insecurity with fear or insufficient humility, these 2 cause are not related.

Insecurity with fear: the need to protect one’s ego is great, that people rather dream small, and risk small, rather than to face the implication of failure.

Insufficient humility: ambition is small because the person does not posses moral or existential humility. He sees his life in terms of what it can achieve for himself, not on what good his life can bring to others.

People with large ambition, usually have it because insecurity with greed or significant humility, these 2 cause also are not related.

Insecurity with greed: The need to protect and satisfy the ego is translated to pursue of material things, with the belief that the possession of material things will lead to real respect and acceptance from others.

Large humility: ambition is big because the person achieve either moral or existential humility, he sees his life as an opportunity to make good for others, and because he is control of what he is going to spend his life on, his is going to spend it to do as much good as possible.

Sustained impact

For impact, hire people with large ambition

For sustained impact, hire people with large ambition that has at least 3 types of humility.




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