Humility and Leadership

Humility and leadership! Those two words don’t seem to go together very often. And yet research makes it clear that humility marks the most effective leaders. So did Jesus. In a previous post, I addressed The Role of Humility in Personal Growth. Today, I’d like to focus on it’s role in leadership.

Humility is one of those qualities that we don’t like to talk about. Most people view it as a weakness, especially in high-pressure environments that demand big results. And if you do talk about humility, you’re often perceived as being prideful. Nobody goes around saying that humility is in his or her top three strengths. As Benjamin Franklin once said:

“There is perhaps not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Bet it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive. Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

Humility is the quality that we hate to develop in ourselves, but love to detect in others. We admire it in others because we detest arrogance and egos. So what exactly is humility? Author C.J. Mahaney defines humility as, “honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.”

When we honestly assess ourselves from the perspective of God’s holiness and our sinfulness, we quickly realize how small we actually are, and how crucial the quality of humility really is. Without humility, we put ourselves on the same level as God himself.  R.C. Sproul writes:

“The grand difference between a human being and a supreme being is precisely this: Apart from God, I cannot exist. Apart from me, God does exist. God does not need me in order for Him to be; I do need God in order for me to be.”

In Luke 14, Jesus is invited to eat at a prominent Pharisees’ house. While he is there, he notices the guests at the party picking the seats of honor. He quickly turns his attention to the guests and shares this parable:

“When you are invited to a wedding feast, don’t sit in the seat of honor. What if someone who is more distinguished than you has also been invited? The host will come and say, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then you will be embarrassed, and you will have to take whatever seat is left at the foot of the table! “Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, ‘Friend, we have a better place for you!’ Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11)

Society, and our own selfish nature, always tells us to look for the four P’s: perks, privileges, power, and position.  That’s what the guests at the party wanted. They were looking for the perks and the privileges. They wanted to be recognized for their power and position. And yet Jesus challenged their thinking when he said, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus’ parable makes an extraordinary point about humility that we would be wise to heed in leadership:

Humility is dethroning the attitude of self-promotion 

Humility begins be dethroning our addiction to self and recognizing our true humanity. Without humility, we live with a false sense that we are at the center of the universe. We detach ourselves from our humanity and we set ourselves up as something we are not. In their book, A Leader’s Legacy, authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner make a powerful observation about humility’s ability to reveal our humanity.

“The words human and humble share a common origin. They both come from the Latin humus, meaning earth. To be human and humble is to be down-to-earth, both feet planted firmly on the ground. Interesting, isn’t it, how as people climb the ranks in organizations they also climb to a higher floor in the building, getting farther and farther away from the ground? It gets harder and harder to remain humble the higher up you go.”

Wilbur Wright, famous for the invention of the airplane, seemed to understand the power of humility. Five years after it’s invention, Wilbur headed to France in 1908 to try to stir up interest. He stored his flying machine at an automobile manufacturing plant. But when his fame shot through the roof nearly overnight after successful test flights in France, Wilbur seemed to keep a level head. He didn’t view himself as any better than the other workman. He arrived to work on time, dressed in overalls, and ate lunch with the other men. He didn’t leave early and he didn’t abuse his influence. Though he conquered the sky, he refused to be conquered by his ego. And that attitude was attractive to the people around him.

So if humility is so attractive to others, why do we resist humility in our own lives? Perhaps it’s because we’re afraid that we, and our accomplishments, will be overlooked. Maybe we’re afraid that we won’t get the favor, the promotion, or the new opportunity, but instead, somebody else will. Therein lies the difference between pride and humility:

Pride is man’s path to pursue favor. Humility is God’s path to give it to you. 

Pride is man’s path to pursue favor. Humility is God’s path to give it to you. Click To Tweet

James 4:6 says, “…God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” The prophet Isaiah said, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isaiah 66:2b). And Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall.” Author C.J. Mahaney brings the point home clear: “This is the promise of humility. God is personally and providentially supportive of the humble.”

Interestingly, Jesus didn’t stop with the guests in his parable. He then turned his attention to the host of the party and said:

“When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” (Luke 14:12-14)

Jesus didn’t stop with instructions to dethrone the attitude of self-promotion. He took things a step further and drives home a second point:

Humility is embracing the action of selfless serving

Author and researcher Jim Collins points out the importance of Level 5 leaders in his Good to Great research. These Level 5 leaders embodied a paradoxical mix of two qualities: professional will and personal humility.

Collins observed that level 4 leaders were egocentric, and that many of them possessed gargantuan personal egos, ultimately failing to set their successors up for success. Their egos often contributed to the downfall of the company. By contrast, level 5 leaders exhibited professional will. They were extremely hard workers and deeply committed to producing sustainable results. What was the difference? They were committed to the company’s success, not their own ego. They were more of a “plow horse” then “show horse.”

One of the word pictures Collins used to describe the differences in these leaders was that of a window and a mirror. Here’s how he described it in his book, Good to Great:

“Level 5 leaders look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck). At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly. The comparison leaders did just the opposite. They’d look out the window for something or someone outside themselves to blame for poor results, but would preen in front of the mirror and credit themselves when things went well.”

How about you? What is your default response when things go well? Do you look out the window and see to who, or what, you can attribute credit? Or do you look in the mirror and take the credit for yourself. Or what about when things go bad? Do you ignore the person in the mirror, abdicating responsibility, and instead look out the window to see who you can blame?

Jesus’ parable is clear and powerful. Humility is essential in life and in leadership. From his parable we learn this powerful truth:

Humility is dethroning the attitude of self-promotion, and embracing the action of selfless serving.

The truth is that all of us can work on this area of life. Humility is not only unnatural, it’s also hard work. And it’s so daily. It requires constant effort to continually humble ourselves and serve others. But the results are unquestionably powerful.

So how do you know if you’re struggling with pride? Consider these ten warning signs:

  1. Your conversations with others are usually about you or your accomplishments.
  2. You have a difficult time learning from others.
  3. You feel entitled to perks, privileges, power, or positions.
  4. You take the credit rather than share the credit with the team.
  5. You compare yourself to others.
  6. When other people experience success, you point out your own success.
  7. You’re focused on being served rather than serving others.
  8. You have a difficult time delegating because you believe nobody can do it as well as you.
  9. You are reckless in your attitude toward sin.
  10. You depend more on yourself than trusting in God.

Question: What steps do you need to take to pursue the path of humility? How would humility reshape your personal leadership and team dynamics?