Op-Ed: Arrogance today, humility tomorrow

A curious micro-debate seems to be emerging in the blogosphere on what is more critical to a social entrepreneur’s success — their humility or arrogance. This is an interesting discussion, as both qualities provide varied paths to success and failure.

For example, often times organizations are inextricably tied to the charismatic, larger than life personalities of their founders or current leaders. Two that immediately come to mind are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. Here arrogance, or what could at least be described as leveraging celebrity status, was a crucial component to the rapid success and growth for both organizations (w/r to the Gates Foundation immense capital also did not hurt).

On the other hand, humility is necessary to ensure that the mission and implementation of a social venture remains focused on the actual people in need of that service or good without employing such feelings like pity or patronizing them. Focusing on humility keeps things simple and straightforward, which often results in the most efficient and effective means for getting from point A to point B. Achieving such humility is difficult, however, as

The reason it is so difficult to obtain is because the mere desire for it precludes one from having it. Have you ever heard a person state, “I have finally become a humble person!” The statement alone is a signal that humility has not been gained. (NextBillion.net)

In some ways then it would seem that any enterprise aimed at helping those in a BoP situation would preclude the ability to remain truly humble, as the first step is recognizing that they are ‘worse’ off than you. Some have argued that there does exist a median, or a point where an entrepreneur has achieved what could be described as a “confident humility.”

Humility allows the entrepreneur to learn from others while confidence permits him to go around meeting players in the network, weed out “noise” to distil[l] the essence of the learnings, and make appropriate course-corrections but without compromising on the fundamental vision of the company. (PluGGd.IN)

However, it is this author’s contention that such moderated approaches and those perspectives that prioritize humility fail to recognize the fact the more times than not, it is the unwavering belief of an entrepreneur in their venture that ultimately results in its success. Now, the reason for this, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the innovators themselves, but instead has to do primarily with the way the market at large for social ventures should function.

According to William Easterly, “humility says that what matters most is improving the lives of the poor. Pride says that I have a solution that the poor desperately need.” (NextBillion.net) While at an individual venture level it may make more sense to encourage innovators to always remain open to changes to their ideas and remain humble.

However, when we take a step back we realize that we do not need the entrepreneurs themselves to self-correct themselves, as the market will determine which ventures are the most effective means for achieving specific goals. Instead of encouraging individuals to constantly reassess their business models, it seems more effective to have them push through and try — if successful their model will be replicated, and if a failure then it will encourage different ideas to be implemented.

That being said, there is a time and place for humility to reinsert itself into the landscape, but I believe that its purpose is later on in the life cycle of a venture. The role of humility seems most relevant after such innovators have already hit the ground running and have come across certain hurdles and challenges that they themselves are no longer able to solve independently. But at least at this point the idea has become somewhat of a reality as opposed to being permanently stuck on a drawing board with the label brainstorming on top.


2 Responses

  1. […] wonders what makes successful social entrepreneurs – being a celebrity, or being down-to-earth.  It’s an interesting question.  While being a […]

  2. […] a good time to point you to an earlier op-ed written by Vinay on this blog. He was highlighting the debate about the need for humility among […]

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