Evan Ramstad, Star Tribune digital business editor, looks at how Minnesota works, explaining what’s behind the headlines and meeting with people who keep the wheel turning.

The bottom line at Carlson School graduation: humility

Posted by: Evan Ramstad Updated: May 23, 2014 - 11:35 AM

They are cocks of the walk. They say "learnings" instead of "lessons." The newest Masters of the Universe. And they're emerging from universities across the nation this time of year: graduates of business schools armed with an MBA or related degree and filled with certainty as they look for jobs in the upper reaches of Corporate America.

At the Carlson School of Management's graduation at the University of Minnesota earlier this week, the class of 2014 got a slightly different message: humility matters just as much as self confidence in business.

It came from keynote speaker Thomas Staggs, a Minnesota native and U graduate who is now chairman of Walt Disney Resorts. He spent about half of his speech on the topic and said that the best business leaders he has encountered in his career recognized the power of humility.

Staggs said when he asked his first boss at Dain Bosworth, the well-regarded Minneapolis finance executive Dick McFarland, what made him successful, McFarland didn't hesitate in his response.  "I'm successful because I assume I can learn something from every single person I encounter on any given day," Staggs recalled McFarland saying.

He also noted that Frank Wells, the Disney president who died in a helicopter accident in 1994, was found on his death to be carrying a piece of paper in his wallet that he'd gotten in a fortune cookie decades earlier. It simply said, "Humility is the final achievement."

On that, Staggs told the graduates, "If you're looking for a mantra to take with you as you go out of the world, you could do a lot worse than that one."

He pointed out that humility is not the same as self-doubt. "In fact, simultaneously possessing a healthy measure of humility and self confidence is one of the best recipes I know for sustained success," Staggs said. "Having one without the other is likely to make you either ineffective, or annoying, or both."

The speech built momentum to this passage, in which Staggs, in just a few pithy sentences, showed why humility is important for both leading a business and building a career:

"One of the dangerous things about success is that it can kill your interest in introspection. After all, whatever you're doing is obviously working, so why bother reflecting on it? Although it sounds ironic, it takes confidence to admit that you don't have all the right answers. But humility is what keeps us asking questions. It motivates us to learn. It makes us receptive to new things. Humility makes us keep trying and makes us willing to look beyond ourselves. If you can do that on a pretty consistent basis, then you're going to be ahead of the game."

The Carlson school posted a video of Staggs' speech on YouTube Thursday. You can watch it below or open in a new window here.

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