How does a person become “humble”? At what point does one arrive at this state of being? Once one has attained this character trait, can one then lose it? And, do leaders need to exhibit this attribute, or is this one optional? I have wondered about these important questions for years. Humility is a tricky concept, maybe even a slippery one. I have met humble people – at least I thought they were humble. But then they become leaders and something happened. That humility seemed to morph into something quite different. In her interesting and challenging book, Open Leadership, Charlene Li describes “open leaders” as follows, “…having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals.” Confidence and humility. Are these both qualities that a leader can possess at the same time? I think we need some definition of terminology at this point.
Merriam-Webster defines humility as “The quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people; the quality or state of being humble.” Webster suggests some synonyms that are helpful: demureness, down-to-earthness, lowliness, meekness, and modesty. It also suggests several antonyms that are even more helpful for understanding: arrogance, bumptiousness, conceit, egotism, haughtiness, huffiness, loftiness, lordliness, pomposity, presumptuousness, pretense, pretentiousness, pridefulness, and superiority. If Webster is correct, I would view humility as a highly desirable trait. If I remember correctly, one of our earlier readings, Good to Great (a secular text), stated that according to their research, humility was the top characteristic for great leaders. So, who would argue with this? Certainly Christians would not. After all, Jesus said of Himself, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29, NIV). But this question begs to be asked, “Where have all the humble leaders gone?”
Confidence also needs to be defined. Again, Merriam-Webster to the rescue! Webster defines confidence as follows:
- A feeling or belief that you can do something well or succeed at something.
- A feeling or belief that someone or something is good or has the ability to succeed at something.
- The feeling of being certain that something will happen or that something is true.
Webster then provides some helpful synonyms and antonyms. Synonyms include aplomb, assurance, self-assurance, self-assuredness, self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-trust. Antonyms include diffidence, insecurity, self-distrust, and self-doubt. What can we deduce from these terms? An “open leader” is one who believes with certainty that good things will happen. Perhaps a humble faith is what is being referred to here. Humility is not about weakness; it is about strength, confident strength. And, an open leader is not one who sits down waiting for things to happen; rather, this kind of leader makes things happen. Because this person is not insecure, this person is willing to take a risk, to get out of his or her comfort zone, and to try something brand new. This leader is unafraid of change, of breaking out of the status quo, of rocking the boat.
Much of Li’s book is about companies and organizations that jump head first into 21st century technologies to better their organizations’ communication and reputations. There are some pretty wild ideas promoted here, ideas that my grandfather would have never dreamed of. One of the concepts I liked the best in this text was the idea of “sandbox covenants.” Everyone can play in the sandbox, but there are rules that must be heeded by all to play safely together. Why covenants and not contracts? Covenants are more personal than contracts; they are promises that people make to each other. Accountability is a big part of a covenant. Covenants imply mutual accountability and, thus, even leaders are accountable – as accountable as anyone else in the organization – in the sandbox. Leaders are not immune from irresponsible behaviors or false promises. They are in relationship with others, not above them. Good leaders give up control and are open to others, albeit appropriately so. Good leaders understand both structure and improvisation. They realize that life is not an either-or proposition but a both-and endeavor. Nobody is 100 percent correct 100 percent of the time. Leaders are humans; humans are leaders.
So, what picture of leadership is being painted here? The best leaders are those who are humble in spirit but are fiercely dedicated to believing in what they cannot see. And, good leaders are not devastated by criticism because they understand that it is not all about them. Criticism is often just one person’s judgment on another person that utilizes only partial information. It is always easier to judge and condemn than to understand, and it is better to wait patiently and silently than to jump to conclusions prematurely. But this is the human condition in all its un-glory! The ugly way is always the easier way.
This past week included several surprises, not all of them pleasant ones. Early in the week, we were notified that due to budgetary issues, there were about to be some “staffing cuts.” These are always times of great insecurity and fear. It is also a time to watch naysayers “naysay.” My office is across the hall from two of our vice presidents. I could tell that something was going on the past couple of weeks just by watching the countenance of one person in particular. This person is one of the most humble humans I have ever met. And without his saying a word, I could see that something was hurting deep inside his soul. Then the news came; nine-and-a-half positions were to be cut from the budget. The memo came out on Tuesday – so did the rumors and the criticism and the finger pointing and the blaming. When I walked into the all-school meeting on Tuesday afternoon, it was like walking into a memorial service. When the meeting was finished, there was nothing but silence, and sadness. Although no names were mentioned, the departments were named who would be experiencing the cutbacks. The names slipped out on Wednesday. And yes, there was grief, sadness, anger, and tears. But what I also watched this week was the attitude of the school leaders. And what did I discover? Brokenness, sincerely grieving hearts, and genuine concern. Frankly, I was flabbergasted. But I also saw something else. A confident strength that our organization would get through this difficult time was also communicated. Wow! At least from my perspective, I observed something that I have rarely seen in all my years in faith-based higher education. I saw leaders “…having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals” (see footnote 1). And how does that make me feel? Humbly confident. Need I say more?
 Charlene Li. Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010) 14.
 Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/humility.
 Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Lead…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001)
 Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/confidence.
 Charlene Li. Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010) 105-132.