Scripture tells us in Romans 12: 3 to “…not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” This is not to say that we ought not to think of ourselves as anything at all. Good meaning people misunderstand the meaning of humility. Many think, especially secular folks, that humility means being a doormat, to be submissive in the sense that they allow others to dominate them. Our Lord was humble in birth, in his earthly ministry and in his death. Jesus says in John 10 that he “lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Humility is active, not passive.
When we think of a leader, we think of the CEO-type of a large corporation, charismatic, flamboyant, a person with a commanding presence. Our culture and media props up men such as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or women like Meg Whitman and Marissa Mayer and say that these are the quintessential leaders to emulate because of their successes in business. This may be so, but it’s interesting that none of those names even come up in academic leadership research. What might be missing from their skill set? Do they have what leadership researcher J Richard Hackman calls the “It” factor or not?1 Are leaders more or less born with leadership traits or is it something according to Jennifer A. Chatman and Jessica A. Kennedy are skills that are “inherently developmental?2
Whatever counts as good leadership, there appears to be convincing studies that have surprised experts and dismantled our assumptions. That is, whereas we thought great leaders were dynamic presenters, clever financiers or luminaries in their fields, etc. It turns out one of the most significant predictor of a great leader is humility3. Jim Collins who has studied and taught leadership for decades at the highest levels calls this “Level 5 Leadership” and is well documented in his book Good to Great. Here he says:
“We were surprised, shocked really, to discover the type of leadership required for turning a good company into a great one. Compared to high-profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities , the good-to-great leaders seem to have come from Mars. Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy—these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar.”4
Years later, still convinced about this “shocking” discovery he adds in a recent Harvard Business Review article that “the essential ingredient for taking a company to greatness is having a “Level 5” leader, an executive in whom extreme personal humility blends paradoxically with intense professional will.”5
This is rather significant and demands our attention because this time he adds the intensifying adjective “extreme” to humility this time. This study affirms what Christians have known for ages. We have to lead like Jesus led if we are to expect lasting impact. I for one am convinced that this is the only effective way to go as we lead our churches, non-profit organizations, corporations, etc. But the bigger question is, will we be the kind of leaders who, by God’s grace, seek to be humble?
1Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), 115.
4James C. Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York, NY: Collins, 2009), 12.
5Jim Collins and Daniel Goleman, “Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve,” Harvard Business Review, March 06, 2017, , accessed November 15, 2018, https://hbr.org/2005/07/level-5-leadership-the-triumph-of-humility-and-fierce-resolve.
5 responses to “Humble Leadership”
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Harry – this is really well articulated and thought out. As the scope of this book was so large, I am glad you focused on this aspect, which enabled me to glean much more from the book than I did on my own. This is truly the power of community at work!
I loved what you said regarding humility being “active, not passive”. I see that in culture as well, and I’m wondering if there are good leaders (outside of Jesus of course) that you would point to from your own experience who model this well?
Hi Karen, I appreciate the question. Here’s the hard reality. I actually don’t know the answer to your question because I can’t think of anyone at the moment.
Part of the problem I see in leadership, at least from my experience is that there is a lack of mentoring, from leaders to mentee. I’ve been wanting this for years and I’m not sure any leaders I look up to would have time. Then again, it may be that I am not trying hard enough to ask either.
At any rate, organization (including the church) ought to have programs where they pair mentors and mentees as a regular part of any employees development.
Harry, you are so “spot on” to quote our British friends! Our Western idolatrous cult of celebrity status (including “leaders”) crosses all fields: business, ministry, politics, the arts, and probably academia. Especially for those of us who follow our Triune God, if we want to be the most “effective leader” for the kingdom, “be last”. If we want the most celebrity status to fulfill our own ego, grasp and claw to “be first”. Great post and great insights, Harry!
I appreciate your post, Harry. Collins work, “How the Mighty Fall” and Tim Irwin’s “Derailed” teach many of the same principles. Irwin gives case studies of “shining star” leaders of well known companies whose turnarounds were derailed by character issues. How often followers have been enamored by charisma and iconic leadership yet in the long run it tends to be those you have written about, the humble yet focused ones, that are effective over the long haul.
Thanks for sharing, Harry. I agree with your description of being a ‘humble leader.’ Now that I am a chaplain instead of serving as an Executive Director of various organizations, I have finally found true humility – and I love it! I call myself a ‘humble chaplain’ – not really a leader but an influencer and a server. I loved where you noted that great leaders are self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy. This all blends into humility and serving, which are valuable components for a good leader. You have those ingredients, Harry. Your positive demeaner and humility make you the great leader and influencer that you are, Harry. Thanks for sharing your gift with others….