Nonprofit Risk Management Center A source for tools, advice and training to control risks ... so you can focus on your nonprofit's mission

September 8, 2010

It’s Hard to Be Humble

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

Confidence and leadership appear to go hand in hand. Effective leaders both project and inspire confidence. Since those responsible for risk management in a nonprofit organization are leaders it seems to follow that confidence should be part and parcel of every risk management effort. Yet according to business guru and author Robert H. Rosen, confidence must be tempered with humility. In his book Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success, Rosen writes, “Being humble involves admitting that you don’t know everything and not feeling like you have to know. It entails listening deeply to others and being eager to learn something new.”

Yet it is hard to be humble when we are called to lead and especially hard when we are asked to champion a complex organization’s understanding and treatment of critical risks. But perhaps not for the reason singer/songwriter Mac Davis cited in his musical tribute to humility: “It’s Hard to Be Humble.” According to Davis “…it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” The vantage point of the risk manager makes it hard, if not impossible, to see an organization as “perfect.” Like a muscle in the body, humility requires “exercise” to avoid its degeneration from lack of use. Maybe it’s hard to be humble about risk because we’re out of shape and out of practice.

Rosen’s definition of “humble” describes two ways to “exercise” our humility muscle. In my, uh humble opinion, these steps should be part of every risk manager’s exercise routine: (1) listening deeply, and (2) being eager to learn.

Listening deeply is not only a “foundation of great relationships,” it’s the appropriate starting point in understanding the nature of risk in your nonprofit. Rosen explains that listening deeply involves paying close attention to people, including “what they say and what they don’t say.” He adds, “…refrain from making quick judgments about people or their ideas. Give yourself time to obtain diverse views, explore new ideas, and weigh what you hear against your own perspective.”

Rosen links the concepts of surprise and learning when he writes, “And finally, you need to be open to surprises. Be ready to learn something new. Be willing to change your mind.”

Learning is fundamental to effective risk management. And risk managers have plentiful sources from which to learn, including losses, near misses, and every instance where taking a big risk paid a large, mission-advancing dividend. In a sidebar titled “How to Be a Teacher and a Learner” Rosen offers several reminders that seem perfectly tailored to the world of risk management:

  • Ask questions more often than you give answers.
  • Be willing to not know.
  • Cultivate curiosity.
  • Learn something new every day.
  • Let yourself be challenged, work through discomfort, and be open to new ways of doing things.

The concept of “confident humility” is one of many thought-provoking concepts in Just Enough Anxiety. The book is a must-read resource for risk managers who serve organizations fueled by high-octane anxiety as well as those who serve nonprofits where anxiety, risk and change are too often avoided to the organization’s detriment.

Melanie Lockwood Herman is Executive Director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She welcomes your feedback on this article and questions about the Center’s resources at or (202) 785-3891.

Melanie’s most recent books include Ready…or Not: A Risk Management Guide for Nonprofit Executives. Information on this book and other recent Center publications can be found at

Anthropologist/Cave Diver Kenny Broad Confirmed as Summit Keynote Speaker

A scientific and film expedition leader who knows more than most about anxiety will deliver the closing keynote at this year’s Risk Management and Finance Summit for Nonprofits. We’re thrilled that Dr. Kenny Broad has agreed to discuss his work exploring blue holes and submerged caves with Summit attendees on Tuesday, October 12 at 9 am. To learn more about Dr. Broad, peruse the line-up of informative workshops planned over the three-day conference, or to register, visit:

As a reminder, the conference ends at noon on the 12th following a series of concurrent workshops. You won’t want to miss the closing plenary with Dr. Broad or the terrific line-up of workshops on the final conference day:

Questions about the Summit? Give us a call at (202) 785-3891.

One Change

Thanks to all of the enews readers who responded to my invitation to identify one change you have made or intend to make to improve the effectiveness of your risk management program. Some of the terrific ideas you shared included:

  • Distributing a brand-new booklet containing basic and practical safety rules to all of our staff.
  • Changing from a fixed fee to a sliding fee scale for membership in our senior center and taking time to explain the rationale for the new rate structure.
  • Exposing employees to “risks” and creating a culture of risk awareness using various communications tools.
  • Creating a blog to explore and discuss social media risks with our clients.
  • Looking beyond the obvious—the work our staff do onsite—to explore exposures created by their afterschool professional activities.

Keep up the good work, remember to embrace (not fear) change, and look for opportunities to share your “lessons learned” with others.

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© 2010 Nonprofit Risk Management Center