Koch Associate Program

What is humility?

We ask four members of our community why humility is important in the workplace and how it helps social entrepreneurs improve the lives of others.

August 4, 2021

By Hugh Cherry

The Charles Koch Institute’s educational programs (the Koch Internship Program (KIP), the Koch Associate Program (KAP), and the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship) combine individualized education with work experience that helps aspiring social entrepreneurs make a positive impact. Our curriculum introduces participants to the principles of Market-Based Management® (MBM), a philosophy that offers individuals the tools they need to transform society.

Humility is one of the eight guiding principles that serve as MBM’s foundation. Humility is not about downplaying past achievements or underestimating your own abilities. Instead, it’s an openness: to new ideas, new knowledge, new collaborations, breakthroughs, and innovations. Humility invites us to be intellectually honest about our strengths, weaknesses, contributions, and opportunities to grow. We asked four members of our community what humility is, why it’s important in the workplace, and how it helps social entrepreneurs improve the lives of others.

David Parmele, Senior Director, Education

Humility helps organizations get work done. Sometimes humility in individuals is equated with shyness, but it actually gives people the confidence to offer ideas and raise questions. It drives collaboration and a supportive atmosphere. In organizations that prize humility, every person at every level considers their strengths and weaknesses and by doing so, they more easily appreciate their colleagues’ value. It’s empowering to work in an environment where everyone accepts themselves and others as they really are to recognize who can provide the greatest contribution.

Social entrepreneurs who value humility don’t pretend to have all the answers. They work with the people closest to the problem to develop solutions. In education especially, there are countless challenges to be solved with a lot of people who believe they have the best solutions, but those ideas might not actually respond to what students and families really need. Humility helps us listen.

James Bowman, Portfolio Management Associate and KAP alum

Humility is incredibly empowering, especially for young people. As students, we’re not given many chances to experiment and fail. Humility lets you try new things, and admit when they’re not working, without that experience being a crushing blow. In KAP, humility helped me identify the job placement for which I was most suited and found the most fulfilling. I’m always impressed when someone turns down more money or a better title because they know a job isn’t right for them. It shows me they put the organization’s mission above themselves. It also shows they’re confident other opportunities will come along.

Friedrich Hayek said no one person can have all the answers. Our society faces so many problems. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. By asking individuals and organizations to consider their strengths or competitive advantages, humility helps them identify what they can do to improve the lives of others.  

Tom Romeo, Research Fellow, Health and KAP alum

You cannot be a lifelong learner without being humble. Humility helps an individual understand where they are relatively strong and weak. I use “relative” intentionally because it indicates openness and room for improvement. Saying “I don’t know” is especially important when coming into a new organization. Even someone at the top with a lot of knowledge cannot begin with proclamations. Having a humble attitude compels a person to do the research they need to determine the right path. 

Humility also opens our minds to new ideas. We certainly need more of this mindset in public health where there tends to be orthodoxy instead of curiosity. Again, the first step to solving any problem is to ask questions, not immediately offer a hypothesis. Science evolves. Instead of telling a community, “You must do this,” we need to listen. By understanding needs and fears, we can develop innovations that will empower people to improve their own health.

Allison Kasic, Director, Economic Opportunity, and KAP alum

Humility is tied to self-actualization. A person must be open to asking tough questions to know themselves and improve. In an organization, humility drives cooperation. Why would a person seek knowledge and feedback from others if they believe they know everything? Our educational program mentors are examples of humility in action. Their role is not to simply download information to mentees. They ask questions that will help program participants grow personally and professionally.

For social entrepreneurs, humility is the opposite of a rigid, expert mentality. Take poverty, as an example. There are thousands of well-meaning individuals and organizations working on that important issue. The ones who are most effective first work tirelessly on the ground to understand local needs. They leave preconceived notions and baked solutions at home. I also see humility in our partners working to reform our criminal justice system. A common core principle of their work is the dignity of others. What do people need to succeed post-incarceration? What will make their struggles more surmountable, and how can I use my talents to help? 

CKI’s educational programs equip innovators to discover their personal passions and make an immediate impact — to create new ventures, improve existing institutions, and contribute right away. Whether you are just beginning your venture or further along, we want to hear from you.