When I first heard Jim Collins lecture on leadership back in February 20, 2002, I was immediately hooked. I still have an autographed copy of his book and refer to it often. What captivated me was not so much the content of his talk, although all of it was relevant and cutting-edge, it was something else. He managed to cover three things that stuck with me: (1) framework for leadership as a discipline, (2) Grounded theory in research and (3) his team’s actual findings. This experience set a path for me to start thinking about leadership in more reflective and systematic ways. I want to highlight those three areas in this blog.
My undergrad degree was in Christian Ministries. I did not know it then but the major effused with the study and modeling of leadership. We read and discussed books by John Maxwell, Stephen Covey, Ken Blanchard, etc., leadership gurus at the time. We compared and contrasted the various popular leadership styles, noting the significant difference between managing and leading. But none of the literature at the time constructed a framework1 for delving into the emerging field of leadership studies until Collin’s Good to Great was published in 2001. Leadership studies is growing as an academic area of inquiry as evidenced by the burgeoning array of options available today, including the one yours truly is in. Thanks in part to influential Evangelical leaders and social critics such as Os Guinness, Christian leadership2 and courage has been highlighted as key in helping others, especially the church successfully navigate the current cultural upheaval happening today.
According to Collins, when it comes to identifying the most significant attributes that define a successful leader, the determiner that identifies one as a ‘Level 5’ leader turns out to be a combination of two character traits: humility and will.3 Admittedly, Collins initially refused to look at the data pointing to leadership as the decisive factor in an organization’s successful transition from ‘good-to-great.’ This was understandable as he did not want to be fall back on a simplistic, generic, all-encompassing explanation suggesting good leadership was behind every successful company, sort of like a ‘Leadership of the Gaps’ explanation, (i.e., the ‘God of the Gaps’ which simultaneously explains everything and nothing). He adds,
“We’re simply admitting our ignorance. Not that we should become leadership atheists (leadership does matter), but every time we throw our hands up in frustration—reverting back to ‘Well, the answer must be Leadership!’—we prevent ourselves from gaining deeper, more scientific understanding about what makes great companies tick.”4
In the end he had to give in and acknowledge the tremendous amount of data pointing to factors that could no longer be ignored—“the data won.” What they discovered was that executives from these ‘good-to-great’ companies possessed the character traits of self-effacing humility, plus the professional will to get things done that none of the other CEOs of the comparison companies possessed. Sure, the other CEOs did not lack skill and were successful in their own right, but it was at the expense of others. When research is done this way, a systematic collection and analysis of data before theories are constructed, it’s called Grounded theory. This method of research uses inductive reasoning in contrast to the deductive model used primarily in the scientific method. Grounded theory usually begins with a collection of data. Then a researcher tries to make sense of the data by asking questions, much like Collins did by asking “Can a good company become a great company and, if so, how?”5 On the other hand a deductive model of research is more in line with the scientific community that begins with a theory, then and only then proceeds to collect data to prove or disprove the phenomenon under study. While Collins’ team did not explicitly name the particular methodology they used in their research, using grounded theory in this case turned out to be ideal.
Finally I want to point out the incredible parallel between Collins’ findings and Scripture. The first issue of The Theology of Leadership did not set out to define what is meant by ‘theology of leadership’ for reasons we are not privy to. However, may I suggest that the editors of the journal borrow from Collins work as a template for constructing a theology of leadership framework that could provide space for data collection and analysis of items of leadership found in the Bible. I’m confident much can be learned from studying the leadership styles of some of the great leaders in the Old and New Testament and how humility and their will to do God’s bidding play a part in their mission. One of the striking similarities between Collins’ discovery and God’s idea of leadership has to do with humility. First of all we do have a model in Jesus for who can deny the cosmic condescension in Philippians 2:8? Some of the individuals God chose to lead were not humble but were made humble like Joseph, Samson, Nebuchadnezzar. Certainly the apostle Paul had to experience vulnerability and depend on others after God struck him on his way to Damascus before God could use him to lead the Gentile church.
Psalm 149: 4 says that God crowns the humble with victory. Humility. Could this really be one of the most uncelebrated key factors to successful leadership? It appears so and I am looking forward to future case studies affirming this.
1 “Good to Great to Gone.” Google Books. Accessed September 12, 2019. https://books.google.com/books/about/Good_to_Great_to_Gone.html?id=JS2o-o99PB4C&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false.
2 Os Guinness. Renaissance: the Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 98.
3 Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. (New York, NY: Harper Business, 2001), 22.
5 Ibid., 3.
10 responses to “Humble Leadership”
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I think you are definitely on to something regarding the humility factor Harry. And citing last weeks “metaphors of leadership” chapter, humility is not always one of the chief characteristics of most leadership symbols. Looking forward to a world in which it becomes the key trait.
Thanks Jacob for your thoughts on this. It would be nice to see this happen more in the world of business. We ought to expect this to be the norm in churches and other Christian organizations. My consternation is that we do not recognize humble leadership even if it stared us in the face. We most likely would react the same way the first century folks did when they first encountered Jesus.
Great post Harry. I think humility is also a key in all people following God and especially for “leaders”.
I noted this in my post and sense you spoke about it in yours, I’m not sure, after reading a few articles, how “grounded” the research really is. There is evidence of vagueness in actually pointing out examples of Level 5 leaders but as well as the view that Collins and team demonstrate a lack of disconfirming research. As I said in my post, this doesn’t take away from the principles and findings that Collins brings to the table or the impact it has had. I think more to the last portions of your post, humility which we find in the Bible long before Collins has always been the key or a key to great leaders.
Thanks Mario. I appreciate your post and have been thinking about my observations and how I should respond to your question/post.
I’m curious about your findings.
1. You said you read some articles in which experts have said that the research does not adhere to Grounded Theory? I’d be interested to know the details, how they define Grounded Theory, etc.
2. You said Collins’ demonstrated a lack of disconfirming research. At the risk of writing stuff beyond my purview, this sounds much like an attempt by the critic to confine the parameters of the research to a criterion known as falsifiability. First, I’m not sure that’s a legitimate rule in trying to prove or disprove anything. Second, I thought the criteria was detailed well (Apendix 1.A, pp. 219-227).
Another thing, perhaps related, is the fact that Collins and his team showed the differences among similar companies not making ‘good-to-great’ status. I’ll call them “nearly good-to-great” (henceforth, NGtG) companies. The difference being the lack of Level 5 leadership, a component Collins initially rejected as the cause. I wonder if this might count for the criteria of “disconfirming” research.
Anyway, good stuff here. Thanks for allowing me to think more about this.
Abreast post Harry, I also found it very interesting Collins’ findings about personal humility and professional will which are character traits. It’s the humility trait that obviously struck me as a key attribute to greatness and it’s correlation to Jesus’s ultimate training of His disciples on humility’ as he washed their feet. Humility is rarely a highlight of leadership traits, yet it certainly is the ultimate competence that makes the big difference between the good and the great leaders, that’s my opinion.
Here, here Wallace! I think that’s why we don’t see a lot of great leaders. It’s very hard to be humble. I know I can’t do it without God’s grace. Sometimes I try to act humble, but in my heart I know I’m just wanting the accolades. It’s one of those “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” kind of a thing.
Great post and I love your focus on a research-oriented approach to study humility in leadership. However we can emphasize and reemphasize humility in leadership (within the for-profit but especially within the non-profit sectors) is critical. Will your research address this? Again, thanks so much for your post.
Hi Harry. Thanks for the kind words. I hadn’t given a lot of thought about including a leadership section in my dissertation. But I think I have to. My dissertation will try to identify causes of the decline of Evangelicalism’s influence in the West and how to reverse it. Os Guinness, one of my heroes of the faith says that part of the problem/solution lie in leadership. We’ll see, not sure yet. We know the younger generations abhor authority and so I don’t know traditional leadership might be effective. I feel like our problems are bad enough to the point that we need to learn to lead ourselves first before we submit to another’s leadership. In other words, we won’t see our need of a leader, mentor or the need to be disciples until and unless we acknowledge our own brokenness and helplessness. Hope that makes sense.
Well said, Sir! You obviously have the passion, interest, and skills to incorporate (self) leadership. I hope you consider it!
Harry, I could not agree with you more that humility is the key factor in leadership as described by the Bible. The fact that God gives grace to the humble as mentioned in James 4:6, shows that God is behind the success. I think the research proves this, but we need someone like you to link it back to the Word of God!