Arrogant. Charismatic. Narcissistic. If you were to name traits that define strong leaders, these words might spring to mind. The evidence, however, tells quite a different story. In this episode of The ABMP Podcast, Kristin and Darren are joined by professor and author Dr. Amer Kaissi to discuss how humility and ambition converge to make a great leader, the interesting dynamic between self-awareness and humility, and behaviors we can all learn to develop humble leadership within ourselves.
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0:00:53.0 Darren Buford: I'm Darren Buford.
0:00:53.8 Kristin Coverly: And I'm Kristin Coverly.
0:00:56.1 DB: And welcome to the ABMP podcast, a podcast where we speak with a massage and bodywork profession. Our guest today is Dr. Amer Kaissi, Amer is a professional speaker and a certified executive coach, his most recent book is "Humbitious: The Power of Low-Ego, High-Drive Leadership." Amer is an award-winning professor of Health Care Administration at Trinity University, a Top-15 program. He is also the author of the book "Intangibles: The Unexpected Traits of High-Performing Healthcare Leaders", which won the 2019 American College of Healthcare executives Book of the Year Award. At Trinity, Amer teaches courses in leadership, professional development and public speaking. His research focuses on leadership, coaching and strategy. He's an avid soccer fan, and he lives in San Antonio, Texas with his wife and two teenagers. For more information about Amer and his book, visit amerkaissi.com. Hello Amer and hello Kristin.
0:01:51.0 Dr. Amer Kaissi: Hey Darren. How are you? Hey, Kristin, how are you doing?
0:01:53.8 KC: Great, we're excited. Well, how we're doing is we are excited to have you here with us to talk about your book Humbitious. It contains such great information about the qualities that go into being a successful leader, but those qualities also apply to being just a successful human and to all of our relationships, so I'm grateful that we have this opportunity to share this information with our massage and bodywork listeners who are primarily small business owners as well. So thank you so much for having this conversation with us today, and we are gonna dive right in. So let's start with your story. Please tell our listeners where your interest and passion for healthcare leadership originated and how you came to write this book.
0:02:32.7 DK: Yeah, the story started back in Beirut, Lebanon, this is where I grew up, and I went to school there, and originally I was interested in public health and general healthcare things, and then I took a course in administration, really liked it, did a graduate degree in healthcare administration but I always knew that I wanted to teach. I just wanted to be an educator, especially in higher education, so I ended up applying to PhD programs in the US, and I found myself in Minnesota, [chuckle] in the middle of the winter, but that's a different story. So I came to the US to do my PhD in Healthcare Administration, and that allowed me to marry the two things that I was really interested in, on the one side, healthcare, the other side, education. And then over the years, as I started teaching graduate students, I realized that there was a whole misconception about what a good leader is. Whether we are talking about a leader in a formal authority position with thousands of employees, or whether we're talking about a small business owner type of leader or even someone with no formal authority, I realized that people had this misconception that a leader had to come in and yell and scream and command the room, and be this overly confident, loud person, and I thought, you know what, let me look at what the research is telling us. And the more I dug into that research, the more I found that it was the total opposite.
0:04:06.5 DK: The research shows that leaders who wanna achieve high performance in the long run, actually need to be a little bit more humble, a little bit more compassionate, a little bit more kind, so that's how the story started, and that's what led me to the research that I'm interested in right now.
0:04:20.7 DB: Amer, your book Humbitious says humility and ambition are the most important skills a leader can use. Tell us about these seemingly at odds descriptors.
0:04:32.1 DK: Yeah, you're right. It may seem like these are mutually exclusive, we're talking about humility and ambition, we're talking about low ego and high drive, but the research actually shows that it is when leaders are able to combine these in that sweet spot in the middle, that they're able to achieve high performance for themselves, but also for the people around them. So the humility starts with this self-awareness, this understanding of who we are, this appreciation of the people that we work with, as well as an open-mindedness to their ideas. So that's humility on the one hand. On the other hand, we have ambition because humility by itself while necessary is not sufficient. We can't reach very far just by relying on humility, we also need to combine with that all of the things that go under ambition such as competence, knowing your stuff, confidence, being able to make hard decisions during difficult times, and then the last one I would say is courage, having that bravery to have a difficult conversation to hold other people accountable. So the research in many different fields, in healthcare, outside of healthcare, in sports, shows that people who are able to bring both the sides of the equation are those that are able to achieve that high performance.
0:05:54.8 KC: Okay, I'm gonna jump in here and speak for some of the listeners who are thinking to themselves, you know what? Ambition feels like kind of a dirty word. Is that gross, like do we really wanna be ambitious, but you clarify in the book that it's more ambition for the organization, not themselves. Tell us a little bit more about that.
0:06:10.5 DK: Yeah, sometimes people have some self-limiting beliefs about ambition and they think if I'm ambitious, then maybe I'm gonna be perceived as arrogant or self-promoting and all of that. And as you pointed, there are different types of ambitions, there is ambition for the cause, ambition for the purpose, for the mission of the organization, ambition for the team, for the people that you serve, your listeners, they are serving their clients, you can have ambition towards serving your clients, serving the people that you work for, so not all forms of ambition are selfish kind of ambitions. Now, having said that, I would also add that there is nothing wrong with self-ambition. Right? There's nothing wrong with that. I mean, what is so wrong about saying, You know what, I have big ambitions in this world because I believe in myself, I'm gonna work hard, I'm gonna learn, I'm gonna stay open-minded, I'm gonna listen to feedback, and with all of that, I want to achieve this kind of success or that kind of success. I don't think it is that bad to have these kind of ambitions as long as we keep our feet on the ground, as long as we allow humility to temper some of that.
0:07:22.4 KC: So Amer, Darren and I were talking about how much we love that you incorporate storytelling into the way that you wrote this book. It's beautiful, and so we have had the benefit of reading so many of your stories that really illuminate everything you're talking about. Can you share a story now that talks about how humility, ambition work so well together.
0:07:40.5 DK: Absolutely, and the reason why I like to tell those stories is because they kind of work so well with the research. So on one hand, we have the research, the facts, the numbers, and some people like that, some people want just to get that, others are more motivated by the stories, so we try to balance the right brain and the left brain and that was my aim in the book. One of these stories is the story of the youngest female leader in the world, Jacinda Ardern from New Zealand. Some of your listeners will be familiar with her. You know, when she was elected Prime Minister back in 2017, she was the youngest female leader in the world, and when you are young and when you're a female in some situations, there are doubts, there are challenges, there are people looking at you and judging you. And she had to face a huge challenge very early on in her leadership reign as a Prime Minister in that in New Zealand, they had a big, huge attack where a armed person unfortunately walked into two places of worship and killed 55 innocent people. They were in shock in New Zealand, this had never happened, these kind of mass shootings don't happen there, and the whole world was looking at her, her country men and women were looking at her and saying, How will this new leader react?
0:09:00.3 DK: Her first priority was the families of the victims. That is what she wanted to focus on first. She went to their living rooms, she sat with them, she cried with them, she listened to them, she mourned with them, and she did it in such a way that politicians don't typically do it. Politicians, sometimes will do that while trying to attract the attention to themselves. She did it all in service of the families of the victims, so she did that for a few days, and then after that mourning period was over, she went straight to her parliament, and she demanded that they pass legislation to prevent these kind of tragic events from ever happening in New Zealand. That was a legislation that was dragging on for their parliament, in their parliament for years, and she passed it in two weeks, she was brave and decisive. So I think when we think about Jacinda Ardern's response to that crisis, that is text book Humbitious leadership. She showed everyone that you can be humble and ambitious, you can be compassionate and strong at the same time. As a leader, there is nothing that says that you can't have both at the same time.
0:10:10.7 DB: I liked in your description of her as well, that when she was younger, I believe you used the phrase sharp elbows, which I thought was an incredible description of what we think of some of those dated leadership traits like arrogance and overconfidence, but yet she learned those through the process of growing up and also in the becoming a leader in many ways that she did.
0:10:36.7 DK: Yeah, you know, we all learn and grow. The typical question that is asked, when we're talking about humbitiousness is, Is this something that you learn or is this something that you're born with? That's the age-old question about nature and nurture and all of that, and you're right there Darren, there are so many things we can learn over time. And what I find in my work as an executive coach, so executive coaching for listeners who are not familiar with it, is someone who works with leaders to help them achieve their high potential. So in my work with leaders, I noticed that for some of them, humility comes naturally, but ambition doesn't. With others, it's the other way around, it's ambition that comes naturally, but it's humility that they have to work on. Either way, it's a journey, it's a growth process, and that starts with first self-awareness, just realizing what is it that you're good at and what is it that you're not good at, and then there is intentionality, there's hard work, there is being really focused on what are the behaviors and the traits that I wanna work on. So you're right, we can learn these things and we can evolve, but we need that self-awareness and we need some feedback from other people.
0:11:47.8 DB: Amer, What is false humility?
0:11:51.0 DK: You know, that's a really important point to make because we have been discussing humility so far, but sometimes you do see false humility in people who are pretending to be humble just so that they can have a positive reaction from others, but in essence, they are not really humble. So I'll give this example. So let's say you asked me about some of the books that I've written, okay, and some of the attention they've gotten, I've been very blessed, I received awards and all of that. False humility may sound like, you know what, Darren and Kristin. Yeah, I've just been so lucky. I don't know how I wrote these books, I just... I didn't know what I was doing. And then the award that I get... Yeah, that was a very bad year for books. That's why they gave me the award, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, I mean, that's false humility. That is not what I really believe. What I believe is my books are good, I worked hard for these books, I'm proud of them. Now, I wouldn't take that to the arrogance level where I would come here and say, Oh, they're the best books ever on leadership. No one has ever written a better book than that, right? So there is a difference there between what is a false humility, what is an authentic humility and then what could be perceived as arrogance.
0:13:10.8 DB: So Amer, as we get to the crux of the book, and you've broken down humility into... And you've broken down humility and leadership into three building blocks, you've broken that down to how do you understand yourself, how you understand your relationships with others, and how you understand your place in the universe. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about each of those?
0:13:31.7 DK: Absolutely. These are, as you've described, and they're building blocks where we start with the foundation of first understanding ourselves and having a good relationship with ourselves as leaders. It always starts with self-awareness. It's a word that I've used a couple of times today, knowing what I'm good at and what I'm not that good at, and also understanding the impact of my actions on others. So we start with self-awareness and that requires self-reflection, that requires deep thinking by ourselves, but also that requires asking others for feedback, specific feedback. So that's the first building block in general terms. The second building block is realizing and understanding our relationships with others. Are we the kind of people that are appreciating other people, or are we taking them for granted? Are we the kind of people who grow others and develop them and give them opportunity or are we the kind of leaders who throw them under the bus when things go badly? So that's the second one, which is, how do we treat the people who are working with us and the people who are with us.
0:14:40.0 DK: And then the last building block, which is a little bit more I'd say a little bit deeper, a little bit, you could call it spiritual, you could call it religious, you could call it whatever you want, but it's kind of a little bit more abstract thinking if you want, and this one is about understanding that no matter how successful we've been in life, no matter how many achievements we've had, at the end of the day, our impact as individuals is minimal. Now, this is not a call for defeatism or for giving up and saying, Well, if it's not gonna matter, what's the point, right? This is about working hard and trying our best while understanding that in the grand scheme of things, you and I, and him and her, we're just one individual, and if we look at the universe, for example, or if we look at history, if we look at death, or at least these big topics, we find that we are just very small, in a way, insignificant.
0:15:37.9 S1: Let's take a short break to hear a word from our sponsors. Anatomy Trains is excited to invite you to our latest in-person fascial dissection workshop, April 10th through 14th, 2023 in Boulder, Colorado. Join Anatomy Trains author Tom Myers and master dissector Todd Garcia on this voyage of discovery, visit anatomytrains.com for more information. Are you a massage therapist who loves to problem-solve? Do you see clients with challenging musculoskeletal issues? If so, then studying precision neuromuscular therapy will help to sharpen your decision-making skills and achieve better client outcomes. Our emphasis is on the problem-solving process rather than the teaching of a singular technique or approach. Led by founder Douglas Nelson, each PNMT instructor is a busy clinician with decades of practical experience, visit pnmt.org to explore our offerings of live seminars, online courses, or the video resource library, the PNMT portal, that's pnmt.org. Let's get back to our conversation.
0:17:00.2 DB: Amer, that last point, how you understand your place in the universe is definitely not something I attribute to leadership, so I was so fascinated that that's in your book, and in there you actually mentioned a nine-minute video about the size of the universe or something like that. I actually watched that, that was mind-blowing, and then I shared it with four of my friends immediately. It was the... As you mentioned, just how infinitesimally small we are in relation to the universe and putting that in perspective helps me to understand better the first two points that you made, my self-awareness, but also my relationship to others and the balance of that.
0:17:41.7 DK: You know what? Darren, you're right. This is a little bit surprising in a leadership book, and I debated so long whether I'm gonna include that last chapter or not. I was just a little bit concerned about the reception it might receive, whether people might see it as, Oh, well, this guy is just out there in the woo woo world, right? A little bit touchy-feely for me now, I don't want that, but then the more I thought about it, it's the same conclusion that you reach too, which is that makes sense, and that actually helps us better understand the first level and the second level, once we get to that point, and start thinking about our place in the universe and how small we are.
0:18:21.3 KC: Amer, I'm curious, listening to you talk about this and having gone through it myself, making all sorts of personal notes as I went through the book and read, when you're doing your executive coaching, is there one area that tends to be the biggest challenge for people? Is it all over the board? What do you find when you're doing that one-on-one coaching that people really need the most work with?
0:18:42.9 DK: Great question, Kristin. Obviously, it's gonna vary by leader, it's gonna vary according to their career stage, younger versus older leaders, it's gonna vary in which industry they work in. Some of the common themes that we work on with leaders starts with this concept of self-awareness, how much do they know themselves. I'm a strong believer that if you don't understand yourself and if you're not leading yourself, then you have no business leading others.
0:19:14.2 DK: So we always try to start with that self-awareness. Is that someone who is taking time to better understand themselves? Do they have 30 minutes on the calendar for self-reflection every week at the very minimum? And most leaders don't. Most leaders, whether you're a small business owner or you are leading a large organization, do not have that prioritized because life is busy and because there are so many priorities and so many fires to put out. So we work on finding that time, blocking that time for thinking and reflection. And then we also work on, how do you know what is the impact of your actions on others? Because we all have blind spots. We can sit in a room and think about myself for hours and hours, but I won't know the impact on my actions unless I ask others. So seeking feedback is another common area that I work on with a lot of leaders, and it's about how to ask for feedback. It's asking for specific feedback, finding the people who I call loving critics, who will give you the feedback with no sugar coating, but who also have your interest, best interest in mind, and what do you do when you receive the feedback? Do you start pushing back and becoming defensive, or do you appreciate the feedback for the gift that it is? So while it varies a lot between different leaders, I'd say those common themes of building self-awareness are probably some of the ones that I work on the most.
0:20:44.1 KC: That makes sense. And I'm curious, and I want our listeners to learn a little bit more about it, when you mentioned time for self-reflection, what do you recommend people do in those 30 minutes?
0:20:53.3 DK: I'd say start at the very basic level with, what am I doing well? And what am I not doing that well? Not with the intention of beating yourself up or ruminating over past events, but more with the intention of being honest with yourself on a self-assessment and some self-accountability. And then there are also situations that require different types of questions. For example, after a success, we all have successes in our life through different points in time, a promotion, opening your own business, having... After any of these successes, celebrate, take credit for it, but also ask yourself honest questions such as, "Who has helped me achieve the success? Who are the people in my life that have enabled that? How did market conditions contribute to my success? How did luck also contribute to my success? So being very honest with yourself after good things happened, and also the flip side of that, being honest with yourself after bad things happen. If there is a relationship that is not going as well as you want it to go, or if you've had some kind of disappointment, ask yourself, "How did I contribute to that? How much of that problem do I own myself?" So I think these would be some of the questions that we can ask ourselves during these moments of self-reflection.
0:22:12.5 KC: I love that, and I love it's something we can all do right away. And another thing that really resonated with me in the section about understanding our relationships with others is the gratitude piece and how powerful it can be to write thank you notes to people and just make sure you're expressing your gratitude to... You were talking about the workplace, obviously, but also just people in our lives, right?
0:22:33.1 DK: Absolutely. I believe handwritten thank you notes are one of those most powerful tools that we have, not just as leaders, as human beings. And people might think, especially our younger listeners, they might think, "Well, handwritten, no, that's just... It's time-consuming, it's clunky, you gotta find an envelope and you gotta write with your hand. We don't do that anymore. Isn't it better just to text someone or to send them an email? It's much faster, much easier. And I say, you know what, if you're thanking people that way, keep on thanking them by text and email. There's nothing wrong with that. But texts and emails are just bombarding us all day long. I mean, how many texts do you get per day and do I get per day? We're getting hundreds of them. How many handwritten notes are we getting per year? It's probably that one handwritten note from grandma after Christmas. That's it, right? Most of us are not getting these, and that's the impact of the handwritten note, it tells the other person, "I took the time to write you this note because I thought that what you did was above and beyond, and it had a positive impact on me."
0:23:38.7 DK: In the book, I tell the story of a handwritten note I received from the president of the university where I work at. We had a president called Dr. Danny Anderson, and I was giving a talk for our alumni association. He was there. Two days later, he sends me a handwritten note. I mean, think about that. The president of the university taking time out of his busy schedule to send me a note. And you bet, I still have that note framed in my office. It's right here. I look at it all the time, especially on difficult days, because it tells me someone up there appreciates the work that I'm doing, and that gives me the motivation to keep going, that's given me the resilience during challenging times.
0:24:20.6 DB: When you're working... As Kristin asked you earlier, when you're working with leaders, are you seeing any type of generational divide with regards to people's receptivity to Humbitiousness?
0:24:32.4 DK: That is also another question that comes up, the question of the young versus the older generations and whether each... Either one of them leans more on the humility side or on the ambition side or what have you, and how are they receiving this message. I wanna start by first pushing back a little bit against some of the stereotypes that we hear when we're talking about generations. And I see that happening a lot, especially among my generation and then the older generation, is that there is a little bit of stereotyping happening and that they're saying, "Oh, the younger generation, they're so full of themselves, they're entitled, they're a little bit on the arrogant side, on the narcissistic side and all of that." And I push back against that. I think it's a little bit... It's an over-generalization. It's not accurate, because I'm a university professor and I work with young people all the time. I work with them day in and day out. And to be honest with you too, I don't see that. I do not see that at all. If anything, I see the younger generation hard-working, facing challenges that we did not face when we were their age.
0:25:43.8 DK: I mean, getting into college right now is 100 times harder than it was when we were applying to college. Finding a job right now is much harder than it was when we were. So I see them facing a lot of challenges, and I see them approaching it with humility, with hard work, with a lot of ambition and all of that. So I'm not seeing the stereotypical generational differences.
0:26:06.8 DK: Another point that I would make about the generations is even if we assume that the younger generation is entitled, let's believe that for a minute, even though I don't think it's accurate, but let's believe it, let's believe they're entitled and all of that, and it's the generation that grew up with seventh place ribbons and ninth place trophies and all of that, so that's what created that entitlement. So we talk about it, and we're kinda like annoyed by it. Well, who created that? [laughter] If they are entitled, who made them entitled? We did. We made them entitled. We are their parents and their teachers and their coaches and their professors, and we are the ones who told them, "The score doesn't matter. Just go out there and have fun. There are no winners and losers, we're all... Right? We are the ones who told them this thing. So if they are indeed entitled, it's our fault, it's not their fault. So that's how I view the whole generational debate, and honestly, I don't see much differences in humility or ambition between the younger and the older generations, but that's my perspective.
0:27:14.7 DB: Okay, Amer. As we bring this podcast to a close, what are some behaviors that our listeners can do today, this weekend, next week, to develop or exhibit humble leadership in themselves?
0:27:27.5 DK: We mentioned one already, which is appreciation of others, whether you wanna do it in person or by writing a handwritten note. I'd say another one that would be really important to focus on is listening. We do not appreciate the importance of listening in our daily lives but also at work and as leaders, and I believe listening is one of those most underrated skills. We over-emphasize communication, being a great talker, impressing others, negotiating, convincing, influencing, but we don't emphasize listening, and I see that most of us are not great listeners because we listen to reply rather than listen to understand, and as we all know, there's a big difference between listening to reply and listening to understand, and a big difference is in the mindset and the role of the ego. When I'm listening to reply, it's all about me, it's all about my ego. I can't wait for you to take a short breath before I jump in because I wanna show you how smart I am, how knowledgeable I am. "I've done this and I've done that." It's all about me.
0:28:35.5 DK: But when I change my mindset, I put my ego on hold, I take myself out of this equation and I listen to understand. Then it's all about you. I am here to listen to you because I'm curious and I'm humble, and I believe I can learn something from you. And whether you are an expert or whether you are a novice, I believe there's something that I can learn from you. And that is the kind of listening that we should all aim for, much easier said than done, but I think we need to be aware of it and we can start taking small steps to listen better.
0:29:09.4 DB: I wanna thank our guest today, Dr. Amer Kaissi. For more information about his book and the good work he's doing, visit amerkaissi.com. Thanks Amer, and thanks Kristin.
0:29:20.2 DK: It's my pleasure. Thank you all for having me. It's been a lot of fun.
0:29:23.3 KC: It has been a lot of fun. And thank you so much for sharing this really important information and information that not only helps us as leaders in our businesses, but also the way that we are in our relationships, in our lives. This was great. Thank you so much.
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