In his book, Humilitas, John Dickson tells the story of boxing legend Muhammed Ali traveling on a flight at the height of his career. While considered a humble man today, his pride showed itself on that flight shortly after the pilot announced that they were approaching severe turbulence, and instructing passengers and crew members to fasten their seatbelts.
When a flight attendant noticed Ali’s seatbelt unfastened, she said, “Excuse me sir. Would you please fasten your seatbelt? The captains has advised that this could be quite rough.”
Ali didn’t see any problem with the situation. He looked at her and said, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” Without batting an eye, the flight attendance responded, “And superman don’t need no plane.” Ali loved wit, so he probably got a kick out of the flight attendant’s comment.
While a humorous story, the reality of pride in leadership isn’t so funny.
In the Old Testament book of Daniel, we read about a king named Nebuchadnezzar who was powerful and well known for the grandeur of his kingdom. As you read his story, you discover Nebuchadnezzar to be a classic example of “The Cycle of Pride.”
THE CYCLE OF PRIDE
Anybody can experience the cycle of pride, but I find it all too common in the landscape of leadership. The pride cycle has four stages, and each stage is evident in King Nebuchadnezzar’s life.
Stage 1: Success
Daniel 4:4 says, “I, Nebuchadnezzar, was living in my palace in comfort and prosperity.” (NLT) Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was no small accomplishment. Babylon was known for its extensive building projects and its gigantic palace. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were even considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. When Nebuchadnezzar says, “comfort and prosperity” he’s giving a subtle hint to his success. That led to the second stage in the cycle of pride.
Stage 2: Warning
In the very next verse, Nebuchadnezzar says, “But one night I had a dream that frightened me; I saw visions that terrified me as I lay in my bed” (Daniel 4:5, NLT). After Nebuchadnezzar had the dream, his magicians, enchanters, astrologers, and fortune-tellers couldn’t interpret it, so he summoned Daniel. This is what he tells Daniel:
“‘While I was lying in my bed, this is what I dreamed. I saw a large tree in the middle of the earth. The tree grew very tall and strong, reaching high into the heavens for all the world to see. It had fresh green leaves, and it was loaded with fruit for all to eat. Wild animals lived in its shade, and birds nested in its branches. All the world was fed from this tree. “‘Then as I lay there dreaming, I saw a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven. The messenger shouted, “Cut down the tree and lop off its branches! Shake off its leaves and scatter its fruit! Chase the wild animals from its shade and the birds from its branches. But leave the stump and the roots in the ground, bound with a band of iron and bronze and surrounded by tender grass. Now let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the wild animals among the plants of the field. For seven periods of time, let him have the mind of a wild animal instead of the mind of a human. For this has been decreed by the messengers; it is commanded by the holy ones, so that everyone may know that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world. He gives them to anyone he chooses—even to the lowliest of people.” (Daniel 4:10-17, NLT)
When Daniel heard the dream, he was scared. You and I probably would be too. We’d think, “If I tell the king what this dream means, I’m dead.” The king can see fear on Daniel’s face, so he tells him not to be alarmed. Daniel musters all the courage inside of him and tells Nebuchadnezzar, “That tree, your Majesty, is you.”
God’s swingin’ an axe Nebuchadnezzar. He’s going to cut you down. You’ll be driven from society and made to live like an animal. How long will it last? Daniel says, “until you learn that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses.” This isn’t a short-term solution. Seven years of misery await Nebuchadnezzar. Then Daniel issues a warning to the king:
“‘King Nebuchadnezzar, please accept my advice. Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past and be merciful to the poor. Perhaps then you will continue to prosper.’” (Daniel 4:27, NLT)
Unfortunately, the king ignores Daniel’s advice, and that leads to stage three.
Stage 3: Deception
Twelve months after the dream, Nebuchadnezzar finds himself admiring his royal palace in Bablylon. “As he looked out across the city, he said, ‘Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.’” (Daniel 4:30)
What happened to Nebuchadnezzar? His kingdom became more than his residence. He turned it into a monument of his greatness. Notice the word “MY” repeated three times in this passage. Nebuchadnezzar said:
- MY mighty power
- MY royal residence
- MY majestic splendor
When “ME” and “MY” consume your thoughts, pride turns your success into a monument of self-worship. That’s an important lesson for all of us, especially leaders. Because he ignored Daniel’s warning, pride consumed Nebuchadnezzar’s heart, and it led to the final stage of the cycle of pride.
Stage 4: Downfall
The next verse is rather remarkable. Daniel 4:31 says, “While these words were still in his mouth, a voice called down from heaven, ‘O King Nebuchadnezzar, this message is for you! You are no longer ruler of this kingdom.” (NLT)
Immediately everything Daniel said came true. The king was driven from his kingdom, and he lived like a wild animal for seven years. Nebuchadnezzar’s experience with the cycle of pride isn’t unique. Countless people have experienced its devastation. Take Chuck Colson for example.
In his book, 7 Men, Eric Metaxas recounts the story of Chuck Colson and his prideful demise. Colson was instrumental in Richard Nixon’s election, and he served as special counsel in his administration. His success was quite apparent. It didn’t take long for Colson to be consumed with arrogance, and eventually his pride – and that of the entire administration – led to the “Watergate” scandal.
After Colson was let go, he began rebuilding his law practice. That decision caused him to seek out Tom Phillips, CEO of the Raytheon Company. Chuck was hoping to land Phillips as a client.
At the end of their initial meeting, Chuck was surprised to hear Tom describe the emptiness he felt despite having so much success. That emptiness led him to a place of surrender to Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade just one week earlier. Before their discussion wrapped up, Colson turned the conversation back to Watergate and quickly cast blame on others and justified his own actions. Phillips wouldn’t have it. He challenged Colson, insisting that it was pride that birthed the mess that Colson and the administration were in.
Eventually Chuck’s sins caught up with him, and he was sentenced to prison. He had travelled all four stages of the cycle of pride: Success, Warning, Deception, and finally Downfall.
Similar stories are told over and over in history as pride devastates lives. That raises a question: How do you break the cycle of pride? It begins by looking up.
Daniel 4:34 says, “After this time had passed, I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up to heaven. My sanity returned, and I praised and worshiped the Most High and honored the one who lives forever. His rule is everlasting, and his kingdom is eternal.” (NLT)
Notice that Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity didn’t return until his attention turned away from himself and he acknowledged God. It was at that moment that he suddenly saw clearly. The first step to breaking the cycle of pride is to see God for who He is, and you for who you’re not.
You’re not God.
You’re not the Supreme Ruler or the Most High.
And your Kingdom, or your business, or your accomplishments are not eternal.
R.C. Sproul observed, “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.”
That’s the truth that king Nebuchadnezzar eventually realized, but it’s also the truth Chuck Colson came to realize before his prison sentence.
During a second visit to Tom Phillips house, Tom pulled out C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, and read from chapter 8, titled “The Great Sin: Pride.” As he listened, Colson slowly realized his personal pride had devastated his life.
After he left Phillip’s house, Colson sobbed. Sitting in his car on the side of the road, he prayed: “God, I don’t know how to find you, but I’m going to try! I’m not much the way I am now, but somehow I want to give myself over to you.”
In the following week, as he read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, his mind was finally convinced, and he surrendered his life to Jesus Christ.
During Colson’s imprisonment, he came to view spiritual renewal in Christ as the key to solving the crime problem. After his release, Colson started a ministry called Prison Fellowship International, and today PFI is active in over 125 countries around the world. When Chuck Colson humbled himself, and acknowledged Christ, God restored his life and gave him a new ministry.
King Nebuchadnezzar’s story concludes with a similar tone. When he finally humbled himself, God restored his sanity and his kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar said, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and glorify and honor the King of heaven. All his acts are just and true, and he is able to humble the proud.” (Daniel 4:37, NLT)
Everybody wants to be great. People build names for themselves and then have monuments erected for their names. Sometimes those monuments only exist in their head. But true greatness is void of pride.
Pride builds grand monuments, but humility builds great men.
Greatness is not found in the grandeur of a monument. Monuments remember man’s achievements, but humility reveals man’s attitude. It’s an attitude that recognizes that without God we are nothing.
Humility plays a vital role in personal growth and in leadership. When humility is displaced by pride, we engage in a dangerous cycle that inevitably leads to a downfall. To break the cycle, you must acknowledge God for who He is, and you for who you’re not.