These days, the Pope’s doing it and CEOs of major firms are all talking about it. The word is humility and it seems to be the new buzz word in business and management. Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric aptly sums up the necessity for humility, when he responded during an interview saying that “.. the big mistakes you make are when you stop asking questions, but if you are hungry and humble and you are always digging for that extra piece of knowledge.. that’s how the world works.”

Jeffrey Immelt said this in a matter-of-fact manner without hesitation. It is not about whether it is a good to have perspective but a critical ingredient if you even want to be competitive in our age. The Internet now facilitates interaction like never before. The immediacy of exchange and lower costs makes it easier to come up with disruptive ideas. Just a few years ago, no one would imagine a company like Facebook will play such a significant role in shaping politics and business but it did. The fact is, the core of information exchange and ideas development has moved from traditional institutions like universities and companies to people out in the streets. Now people everywhere, in a street corner, or in cafes, are collaborating with someone, even if they are in another timezone; they are seeing the world with new eyes and creating ideas that can change the world.

Strong under-currents of ideas are disrupting industries

These strong under-currents of rapidly developed ideas are usually not visible until they breach the surface and provoke ‘giants’ after demonstrating financial success. However, many established companies in Asia continue to cruise as if it is business as usual. Whether it is retail, hospitality or aviation, the under-currents are already there and this time, many will come from non-traditional sources. Take for example, the rise of Air Asia: Tony Fernandes is not someone from the aviation industry. And yet he has managed to build a successful business model, and more importantly, created a culture that embraces change rapidly.

What Tony has achieved is no mean feat. His business operates in a region that has some of the best airlines in the world such as Singapore Airlines. Regulatory environments tend to favour state-owned carriers even if they lose money and the lack of synergies has made operating costs a challenge. And yet, Air Asia continues to thrive because it adopts a humble approach to doing business. Tony may not strike you as a humble person because of his brash and outgoing style but he makes an effort to work on the ground for a few days in a month to understand how the operation is doing. During one such stint, he made the decision to get belt loaders after experiencing it himself how difficult it was, to load an Airbus plane as it was higher. This improved efficiency and helped to raise morale among the crew.

A culture of order or a culture of humility

Essentially, Tony’s model represented the image of the new enterprise of the modern age. One that is humble, where there is this presence of the ‘start-up’ spirit, where management is involved not as bosses but as facilitators of ideas. It is a revolutionary approach and one very suited to our age of rapid development of ideas. And when you pit Air Asia’s culture versus Singapore Airlines (SIA), the quintessential face of a traditional giant, you will not get a better contrast. Singapore Airlines is still a very well-run airline and a highly-respected enterprise. But while Air Asia’s management openly share stories about staff contributing specific ideas; you will seldom hear that from SIA. Run almost like a military operation, with a clear sense of hierarchy, SIA is often more comfortable talking about new leather seats for customers, new makeup for their cabin crew or even how a customer relations officer went the extra mile to mow the lawn of a premium customer so as to retain him. But not much has been heard about experiences where they took specific ideas from cabin crew and ground staff and turned them into reality or how management is taking time to serve with staff to understand the changing demands on the front lines.

In recent years, SIA has finally recognised the need to change as revenues have declined. Now that the budget airline business is beginning to mature, SIA has decided to get in big time. It has a significant stake in a budget carrier named TigerAir and it has launched another budget airline called Scoot. Just like Microsoft, it is throwing all its resources and marketing power to win by launching new brands. But just as Microsoft has learned in a hard way, until there is change from within, in terms of organisation and culture, there is almost no way one can succeed by simply launching new brands and services. It is no wonder that Steve Ballmer had to reorganise Microsoft recently in order to improve execution and enhance collaboration. Now, that is a dose of humility that traditional Asian firms need, in order to be competitive in the 21st century. As our environment gets more complex, you need a culture that embraces humility to break down the barriers and not erect new ones.

A desire for status quo or a desire to live life

In our work, we have discovered that Asian firms tend to practice humility as an act of piety and not as a practical means to achieve success. Many people will readily ‘act’ humble before superiors and elders but most people will find it hard to eat the humble pie when mistakes are made. So humility is practiced in an extreme way when people prefer to resign as a ‘sign’ of humility rather than admit their mistakes and stay to make it better. Therefore the general practice of Asian humility is not really a practical one but more as a way to fit in.

These practices in some way are a result of centuries of influence by schools of thought such as Confucius who developed principles that will ensure harmony and order. But interpreting his teachings must be done with the understanding of context. In his time, numerous wars and social upheavals led people to search for meaning and reference. Therefore, the concept was to advocate strict adherence to a code of conduct so as to ensure peace and harmony in society. Through the centuries however, these notions soon became a framework to suppress a healthy sense of questioning and the quest for knowledge. Although, through the years, many academics and philosophers from China to India did emerge to question norms of society to try and provoke change, many Asians are still under the impression that to question is a sign of disrespect and that maintaining status quo is key.

The West on the other hand, has a very different concept of developing ideas and society. Largely influenced by Greek thinkers who sought to question everything so as to arrive at understanding, this concept was reinforced by the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes who advocated the idea of ‘Cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think therefore I am’. The necessity to question and define one’s existence has inspired and triggered many societal and commercial revolutions. For example, is the phone simply a phone or is it a computer? Or why must we have a monarchy, why not a government for the people and by the people? This existential pursuit of meaning ensures that the West continues to lead the East in terms of innovation. This is why the East has a lot to be grateful to the West. From education to technology, to elevating the millions of people from extreme poverty, Asia has risen on the bedrock of Western ideals.

Humility is needed to shape a new Asia

Now that Asia has the foundation and resources to contribute to a better world, it is time to cast off the yoke of the past and develop a whole new way of thinking. To do this, it is not enough to build organisations that are only vessels of wealth but also demonstrate commitment to free people of ignorance and empower them to be better persons. This new way is also needed as many Asian companies are leaving protected environments and now operate in many parts of the world. In these new environments, cosy ties with the state and home advantage will matter less. They will stand on the same ground as western firms who have a head-start in building a culture of learning and humility. Here are 3 ways to leverage on humility so as to shape the world:

1)  Re-define the notion of power

Traditionally, power has been given to those with experience or connections. But in a time of rapid change, people should only be given power if they know how best to harness insights, see things in a different way and build collaboration. The idea of leaders taking a pro-active approach to ‘bend down’ so as to raise people up is important because many cultures consider it anathema to speak up before the boss. To do this, leaders cannot hope that humility will take root unless they lead the way. Therefore in companies, it is important to create a new impression on the notion of power. We have seen when you do symbolic gestures like removing the walls between staff and management canteens, or having the CEO walk in quietly to serve with the staff without fanfare and creating moments when CEOs simply listen without making a new decree, goes a long way to inspire a culture of humility.

2)  Re-design the organisation not around positions but around flow of information

In these times, when information is flowing rapidly and has the ability to change course just like a river that is inundated, it is important to review if the organisational structure is holding back collaboration. More importantly as senior management, are you receiving the necessary flows of information to perform better. If not, it is better to uproot yourself and move to where the action is. It is interesting to see how Pope Francis has changed the flow of information to him by simply rejecting the use of the papal apartments. It is a messy thing to have the Pope stay in the hotel of the Vatican. But he did what many CEOs should do, be in the thick of the flow of information. Since the hotel receives many visitors, he has the opportunity to interact and hear for himself how the organisation is doing.

Likewise in many Asian firms, whenever we conduct organisational research, so many CEOs are not aware of the flow of information because their structure is not able to direct relevant information to him or her quickly. Therefore it is important to break down traditional practices and create moments when senior management go down to the front lines to get a sense of the flow of information. We advocate that departments be disrupted once in a while so as to work with those not from their own to gain new perspectives.

3) Re-engage constantly to prevent ivory towers from rising

For humility to take root, it will take more than gestures to succeed. In our firm we conduct an annual practice called Bonsai where we share areas of improvement for each other. It begins with the most senior position in the firm to the most junior. It really renews everyone because it gives everyone a sense that everyone is here to make things better. To ensure that the practices make sense, we also conduct a study to assess the flow of information. This study, which we have conducted for numerous clients, always shows that people have a deep lack of faith in their institutions to accept new ideas and change. Whenever we translate these insights into monetary terms, it means that these companies are losing millions of dollars every year because of their fear for dialogue and change. To fight this lack of belief, companies have to realise that you can only profit from humility if you are constantly having practices and performance indicators to fight the evils of pride and hubris. The last global financial crisis prove how dangerous these can be and so it is never harmful to take more doses of humility, if one seek to become a brand that will shape the world.

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Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus, a company specialising in helping Asian firms rebrand and redesign their organizations to be more innovative through business design. Consulus has begun operations in Sri Lanka in partnership with Hummingbird International. Shiraz Latiff is the CEO/Lead Consultant  of Hummingbird International, a regional knowledge house specialising in coaching, consulting & outsourcing through global partnerships & collaborations. 

This article is part of a weekly column called Shaping the World where Lawrence and Shiraz share insights and ideas about building innovative Asian Brands. It is published by one of the leading dailies in Sri Lanka, Ceylon Today.