Key to Leadership: Humility

Leadership guru John Maxwell places humility as the highest trait of the most effective ‘Level 5’ leaders.

Bradley Owens, assistant professor of organization and human resources at the University at Buffalo School of Management says that humility is a powerful predictor to the success of a company or organization.[1]

Jim Collins researched qualities of the top Fortune 500 companies and found that every successful company had a “level 5 leader (humble)” in place at the key moments of transition in the organization.[2]

This shouldn’t surprise us.  The greatest leader of all times taught this same principle.  In Jesus’ final moments with His disciples, he chooses to teach them about leadership through humility and service.  The God who created everything, who knows all that can be known, who holds together the universe stoops down to wash the feet of the disciples; one of the lowliest jobs a person at that time could do for another person.  After washing the disciples’ feet, He says this:

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” – John 13:12-17

The fact that Jesus chooses his final hours with the disciples to teach this should cause us to pay attention; this is obviously important to Him.  He says that this is an example for us to follow, one that will give us blessing if we do it.  Jesus’ point is not that we need to walk around with a towel washing others feet.  His point is that we need to serve each other, even if it means serving someone by doing something we think is beneath us.

Temptation of Pride; Temptation of Low Self-Esteem

All of us can be tempted toward pride if we are not careful. Pride is to focus on your self, your achievements and your position.  Pride will hinder us from being the most effective leader we can be.  As we live in pride, we do not tap into the strengths and abilities of others, which will only hinder the cause.  As leaders in the order of Jesus, we must follow the example of Jesus and be humble.

Whereas pride can hinder our humility, so can a low self-esteem masked as humility.  Humility is not low self-esteem.  C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”  June Tangney of George Mason University explains that humility is having an accurate view of yourself.  A humble leader will acknowledge mistakes.  “She has low self-focus. She is aware of her place in the grand scheme of things and is sensitive to larger and possibly higher forces.  The humble person has the ability to be ‘unselved.’”[3]  In leadership we want to be humble.  This requires that we flee pride, but do not fall in the pit of low self-esteem.

Position vs. Posture

So, how do we become humble?  There are principles to follow, but no one can give you 5 steps to being a humble leader.  One helpful distinction is the difference between position and posture.  Position is a title or authority that you are given.  Posture is not a title, but an attitude or way of presenting yourself.  Humility is a posture of your heart, not a position you are given.  Greg Ganssle clarifies, “Humility, like cynicism, is a posture.  It is a posture fundamentally oriented towards Reality.”[4]  You can hold a position, such as “CEO” or “President” or not.  But, regardless of position you hold, you must have a posture of humility.

I have noticed this in professors.  A professor holds the power position in the classroom.  The professor can give out bad grades, make learning difficult, and assert his/her position over the student.  However, a good professor will take a posture of humility.  A good professor will not assert his/her position unnecessarily.  Though the professor has a higher position and greater knowledge, the professor will become a ‘co-learner’ in the classroom and work with students on their level.  When that happens, the professor leads well.

Jesus’ humble posture is described in Philippians 2:6-8:

(Jesus), though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,even death on a cross.

Jesus had all power and position available, yet He chose to lay aside his position to take on a posture of humility as servant of all.

Love is the Key to Humility

John Dickson defines humility as “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.”[5]  The essence of humility that is found in Jesus is love.  To regard others so highly that you give out of every resource available to you (including yourself) to promote their good.  After all, Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  This posture of love and humility is one that you can choose and/or lose at any given moment. But, every great leader is a humble and loving leader.

Humble people are self-aware, neither downplaying their gifts nor hiding their mistakes.  Humble people will love others and view them as important, valuable and worthy of dignity.  Humble people are always open to learning new things and adjusting to new circumstances.  Humble people make the best leaders.

ACTION PRINCIPLE:  Shared Leadership

Shared leadership is essential to ministry.  1 Corinthians 12 makes the strongest case for it.  So, what is shared leadership?  Shared leadership is a group of individuals who come together around a common vision, take responsibility to plan and execute that vision, and are mutually encouraged and held accountable for the execution of the vision.  Shared leadership will be most effectively employed when the individuals are recognized for and operating in their gifts/strengths.  Here are some keys for any leader:

  1. Knowing Who You Are and What You Offer – having a sense of what you are gifted to do will help you know how to best be used to achieve the vision.
  2. Recognizing the Gifts/Abilities of Others – always be on the lookout for people who can help achieve the vision.  Be quick to encourage and empower other people in their gifts.
  3. Let Go of the Reigns/Roll Up Your Sleeves – you need to have a healthy tension of delegating responsibility (letting go) yet taking on responsibility (rolling up your sleeves).
  4. Trusting God for Things Beyond Your Ability – as a team, you must not be limited by what you can do.  God shares your vision and so you must identify ways that He must “show up” to achieve the vision.
  5. Creating Buy-In – everyone must have a voice in the process of planning and execution.  You facilitate this by doing some of the following:
  • Be open, honest and direct about your intentions (you’re not trying to manipulate anyone)
  • Keep the vision before the team; remember why you are doing what you are doing
  • Ask for thoughts and input from each person on the team (everyone should say something)
  • Listen and Engage by considering the ideas and suggestions of others
  • Restate and affirm voiced ideas, even if they are not good ideas
  • Ask for help with the vision; give specific tasks so everyone has ownership and responsibility
  • Build trust by respecting boundaries/time constraints

[1] Humility: Key to Effective Leadership, ScienceDaily (Dec. 2011); summary of a study in Academy of Management Journal

[2] Jim Collins, Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001).

[3] David Brooks, In My Humble Opinion, NY Times Blogs (June 2, 2011);

[4] Greg Ganssle, Cultivating Essential Virtues for Christian Scholars (National Faculty Leadership Conference, 2008).

[5] John Dickson, Humilitas (Zondervan, 2011).

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