In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes a series of virtues familiar to us as the Beatitudes. The third Beatitude is “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5 ESV). Jesus’ words are mirrored in the Psalms, “The meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace” (Psalm 37:11 ESV). What does it mean to be meek?
The Greek word for “meek” is pra-us and translates to the English as mildness, gentleness of spirit, or humility. Meekness is demonstrating humility in your relationships with others and with God. It is having the authority to do something, or being entitled to receive something, but refraining for the benefit of someone else. Some describe it as strength under control. Paul urged meekness when he told us “...to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love..,” (Ephesians 4:1-2 ESV). Stated simply, meekness displays humility, a willingness to disregard one’s own rights and privileges in favor another.
I believe very strongly that humility is a core element of the Authentic Leader (see my related article on SERVANTUDE). This is not to say that you cannot be a great leader without the spiritual gift of humility. The full accounting of Gifts that design a leader come together with other intangibles such as their belief system, experiences, personality, and grit to uniquely qualify him/her for God’s Purpose. If humility is a weakness, know that it can be practiced and learned. By practice and more practice, it will eventually become habit and weave itself into the fabric of the Authentic Leader.
Humility is the gracious application of this complement of Gifts for the benefit of others. Paul reminds us of this in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Rick Warren summed it up by saying, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” I have been coached by my son, Robby, who examples humility as a form of empathy – he has developed the habit of looking toward the interests of others before acting on something. I think of Terry, a friend of more than 30 years, who gave up a lucrative career in the booming technology sector to work at a Colorado Springs’ homeless shelter. And of John, who mustered teams to take care of countless faces in his community – many of whom he did not know – in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey even before he took care of his own flooded home. The best leaders are selfless; they are more concerned with the well-being of others than their own situation.
Being a humble leader doesn’t mean you are a timid, or weak leader. When you express actions as a humble leader, you demonstrate fair and balanced authority. You believe in the power of collaboration. You are approachable. You are a willing listener – the last to speak. You give credit where credit is due. You give others a chance – you understand how the power of delegation will value a team member and give them ownership in the solution or project. You create opportunities for others to succeed and to take credit, especially for those who cannot return the favor. By becoming a role model for humility, your team will immediately see a difference. In my experience, the most humble leaders build the most productive teams. Is humility in the core of your leadership value system?
Being a humble leader means that you acknowledge your own shortcomings. You are open to and aware of the mistakes that you can make, and have made. It means being able to admit when you are wrong, and accepting fault in uncertain outcomes. When a mistake is made, a humble leader will confess it and turn it into a teachable moment. If you are confused or unsure about options or direction, ask for clarity and admit that you need more information and would like to hear differing viewpoints. You ask others to help you with the decision, or to help you gather missing information. These things may require some soul-searching, but they will show others on the team of your patient, but open humanness in making the best possible decision. It might require the leader to become more comfortable with being vulnerable, however. By making yourself vulnerable, you will increase your visibility and value as a leader in the eyes of your colleagues.
Here are some "grass roots" habits I have witnessed in other Authentic Leaders:
• Rolling Up Your Shirtsleeves to Get "Dirty" on the Front Line. Whether with your colleagues or your community, people around you need to know you are a team player, that you are willing to work FOR them. Move your desk to the front lines. Get out of the office. Work on the outside of a closed door. In so doing, the Authentic Leader will break down any "glass wall" barriers of communication and appreciation. This will make it easy for the leader to find additional [and spontaneous] ways to support and encourage the people around them. When your light shines, the people around you will grow loyal to you and the effectiveness of your teams will skyrocket.
• Complimenting a Colleague's Family Member. Telling somebody that they have done well is pretty easy. It actually is a form of encouragement. But have you ever offered that compliment via the colleague’s spouse or family member? There is a ricochet effect that leaves the family member encouraged, and when your kind words make it back to the colleague, they will feel valued, as well. "Hey Fred,your wife did a great job on the marketing plan at the office last week -- she is a winner, for sure!" These kinds of words will go a long way as they ricochet through the family.
• Putting Your Ego in Your Pocket. When faced with an unpopular decision, being able to maintain objective judgment is one of the tools of humility. If you let your personal bias interfere with your decision-making, some of your team will deem your position(s) unfavorable. A valued mentor and friend used to call this "keeping your ego in your pocket." If you can be counted on to make decisions that truly benefit the entire team, in spite of obvious personal advantages that may exist for you, you will cultivate respect and trust from your colleagues. Without respect and trust it will be difficult for a leader to have influence. Without influence, the leader is a leader in name only.
• Unclogging a Toilet. This is hardcore leadership by example. There is no job beneath your pay grade when you lead with humility. As leaders, we remember that our team looks to us to set the example. Make sure they see a gold standard when they watch your work. And after you have cleared the toilet, even if you did all of the work yourself, be sure to give credit to all of those who helped in any way. When your team knows that you are willing to work for them, in spite of obvious disadvantage to you, and that you are not in it for “credit,” the loyalty of the team will improve. By the way, I think it should be a requirement of all leaders to clear a clogged toilet in the workplace at least once. You demonstrate that you can be counted on, in spite of circumstances. And if your actions are not noticed you will help yourself to maintain your context of humility.
So what is not humility in leadership? Perhaps with the situational exception of leaders who are placed in life-threatening circumstances (police, firemen, the military, etc.), humble leadership is not about strong-willed, demanding, “my way or the highway” authority. Humble leaders are not circumspect. They are not chest-thumpers. Nor are they obsessed with control. They are not prideful, arrogant, or self-seeking.
Further, I am reminded that there is a difference between genuine Christocentric humility and contemporary forms of philanthropy and situational humanitarianism (thanks, Robby). A lot of people do great things for others, but often for selfish reasons, and in selfish timing. This kind of "selfless altruism" is often motivated by a desire to create a favorable and voguish outward appearance, either before others, or for other personal gain. Mock humility will neither be genuine nor be a habit. If you imitate humility, you will eventually be exposed and your true motive be revealed. You cannot be an Authentic Leader if you carry around inside you a sense that you will be humble only how/when/where it is convenient to you.
The character of humility was exemplified and encouraged by Jesus. Though he certainly could have, He never bragged about himself. Instead, Jesus spoke favorably of others who are the meek and the humble -- He went so far as to say they would inherit the earth. We are reminded in Proverbs that, "God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble" (Proverbs 3:34 ESV). Humility in leadership, in all avocations, is universally valued. The humble leader is respected for his careful consideration, kindness, empathy, and compassion. And regardless of the advantages they may accumulate, they credit God, others, and outside factors for their success.
How does humility benefit YOU as a leader?