Humble Hubris: Our Impact is Collaboration

Dec 14 / Jim Benson
It takes a lot to say, “Thank you.”

It takes even more to say, “You’re welcome.”

Why do you think this is?

Why, when someone says “thank you” to us, do we reply with “sure” or “any time” or “no problem”…but not you’re welcome?

I have a chapter on collaborative leadership in The Collaboration Equation that contains a concept we call “Humble Hubris”. Every interview I’ve had since TCE came out has asked about humble hubris. It’s a shocking duo, seemingly impossible.

So I’ll tell a quick story.

Why Our Personal Impact is Collaboration

From 1991 to 2000, I was in varying leadership roles (local, regional) with The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. I helped people grieve, advocated to get people to recognize the scope of the pandemic, and built.

We built bridges, understanding, community, coping mechanisms, funding sources for AIDS service organizations, legislation, political campaigns…the list goes on. People were dying, the threat was real, and effective action was strangely easy to identify and act on.

When I started with the Quilt it was the size of a small park, when I left it was over 50 square miles of meaning and fabric and growing. The largest memorial and public art project in history. To say I was part of something bigger than me was a gross understatement.

What an Epiphany Looks Like

In 1992 there was a huge gay March on Washington. We were there. We did a display and, of course, participated in the march itself. At one point, we were walking. My co-chair Roger and I were up front with Mike Smith and others from San Francisco carrying the banner which stretched across the city street.

Waving, being part of the Quilt, happy to be there, etc.

At one point a woman runs out from the crowd and hugs me like I’m Paul McCartney. She’s crying and won’t let go. I’m trying to carry the banner and this woman at the same time and Mike says to me, “I think she needs you.”

Mike, as you can tell, is very observant.

He then says, “Go, we’ll still be here, get her what she needs and catch back up.”

You know…go do what you are supposed to do as a Handmaiden of the Quilt.

So I let go and … we stand there. A March of 100,000 people streaming around us.

She holds on, she’s apologizing, she’s shaking.

And she says to me, “Thank You…everything you are doing…thank you.”

And I say, what you would say, what any of us would say, “I’m not doing anything.”

Because the Quilt was the important thing. AIDS awareness was important. The people we were losing was important… not Jim Benson. Who cares about a 20something year old guy from Nebraska?

Humility…or so I thought. So any of us would think.

This alleged humility made her very…very angry.

I was 6’3” tall and skinny. She was maybe 5’4”. She reaches up and grabs my face and pulls … yanks really … my head down to hers and fiercely informs me, “No, don’t pull that shit with me. You [shaking my face for emphasis] are doing something. It is important and you need to own it!”

There was no sound, chanting, singing marchers faded away. She stares at me.

“We need you.” She says.

There are many points in your life where your life changes. That was one.

My humility, she was telling me, was false humility. Not that I was secretly an egomaniac, but that I was denying that without a community of individuals, without a team of Jim Bensons and Roger Gladdens and Danny Ripleys and Ann Miners and Trish Drews and Mike Smiths and Gert McMullins and Cleve Joneses, there would be no Quilt, no AIDS hospices or meals, no education, and ultimately, no end to the pandemic.

I was small, but I had impact.

So many tiny stones against the walls of intolerance and fear. Just like each individual Quilt panel told a story, but they combined to tell exponentially more stories that the sum of those panels.

We were also NAMES.

And so are you. We all are.

We have the Hubris to start or further projects bigger than ourselves. We have the Humility to share those projects with others, to collaborate, to build. To see our ideas evolve. 

If we don’t own this, as my anonymous counselor in the middle of a DC street informed me, we deny our own impact and therefore undervalue the impact of others.

She stared at me, into my teared up eyes and said, “Thank … you.”

And Jim Benson said, “You’re welcome.

Practicality: What do We Do With Humble Hubris?

“You’re welcome” is an acknowledgement that you have had impact and that your impact was recognized by those you work with. It is saying, “I did this for you, with you, and because of you.” It is the essence of successful collaboration. If you mean it, it is the embodiment of Humble Hubris.

In your teams, companies, agencies, churches, whatever, leadership as an action requires the valuing of positive impact of the people gathered. This means they need the opportunity to act and healthy recognition when they do. Above all, we need to build the expectation that people will indeed act when appropriate.

Ask yourself, how you take things for granted and start with the person you have the most boring meetings with: yourself.

  • How do you take yourself and others for granted?
  • How do you deny people credit for having positive impact with dismissive statements like That’s just your job.
  • Where are there barriers to action…rules, centralized decision makers, policies…that actively stop people from acting like responsible professionals?
  • What do we do that makes proper action unclear or a personal threat?

These are the enemies of Humble Hubris…of having the guts to act in a way that improves things. 

This story, this write up, is not in The Collaboration Equation. Other stories are. More professional stories. But this holiday season, when so many people are actively fighting with their families, when we are so divided, when work is alienating … I wanted to tell a very personal story.

Own your impact and in doing so, see the real impact of everyone else. Let’s practically value other people for a change and, as Deming said, Make a Better World.