Humility Revisited

kinnon —  November 29, 2005 — 5 Comments

Ira Williams wrote a ChangeThis manifesto, Speak Softly,  that I briefly noted a few weeks ago, prompting a number of great posts from Ed Brenegar here, here and here, as well as his November 28th column in the Asheville Citizen Times. Perhaps I can add a little to the conversation. (You will be the judge of that.)

Williams writes that for many of us, humility equals weakness –  "however, …it requires tremendous strength and character to place others’ interests before your own." Williams sites Jesus as the primary example of the juxtaposition of strength and humility. He unpacks the definition of humility:

Most dictionaries use some variation of the following: 

The quality or condition of being humble. 

OK, so what does it mean to be humble? 
One definition of humble is: 

Marked by meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit;   not arrogant or prideful.  

But we struggle with the word ‘meek". Even Christians seem to have a hard time with Jesus’ words (in the Sermon on the Mount) that the Meek shall inherit the earth. Meek is a Casper Milquetoast character –  ineffectual, living life as a doormat. I recently heard a pastor attempt to counter this by stating that meek really means strong. He had it half right – meek can be translated as "strength under control" or "the opposite of self-interest."

The Celebration of Arrogance

MarlboroBut the American dream (as seen in the eyes of Boomers) is the fiction of the rugged individual, taming the wild west with his bare hands, taking nothing from anyone – the Marlboro man. His physique dominated by a chest puffed large with pride. He is driven by self-interest, and in the Atlas Shrugged world of Western capitalism, he is the Hero.

We are fascinated by these characters who write their name large – the Donald Trumps of the world whose "reality" show we watch breathlessly. We live our lives vicariously through these arrogant stars – hoping that one day we too can achieve the station where we lead with these incredible words, "You’re fired!" To be a "real leader" in this present age you must demonstrate your incredible power, caring little for the lives you will negatively impact.

This Too Will Pass

But this present age is passing. As I’ve written ad nauseum, the values of the Emergent (civic) generation are replacing those of the boomers. Community is becoming more valued than individualism. A consensus model is replacing command and control.

Humility will be the defining feature of the Emergent leader. Williams offers a wonderful quote from the 17th Century pen of William Temple:

"Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all."

Jesus set the example of the leader who thinks not of himself – the true servant leader. In response to two of his disciples whose mother was lobbying for their position in his "Kingdom", Jesus states "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Read Matthew 20:20-28)

But even some of us who "worship at the altar" of Servant Leadership guru, Robert Greenleaf, may be mistaken in  our understanding of the phrase ‘servant leadership’. David Fitch, in his book The Great Giveaway says:

"Although Greenleaf has numerous insights into the dynamics of leadership that ensure good leadership, he cannot seem to avoid the modernist temptation to make those servant dynamics into a technique to be employed to achieve a desired outcome. He therefore can characterize servant leaders in the following terms: "A mark of leaders, an attribute that puts them in a position to show the way for other, is that they are better than most at pointing the direction….It may be a goal derived from consensus, or the leader, acting on inspiration, may simple have said, ‘Let’s go this way." But the leader always knows what it is and can articulate it for any who are unsure." Yet what Greenleaf evidently fails to realize is that the nature of servant leadership changes when it is looked upon as a technique to achieve different goals." (page 87)

Humility is not an attribute to put on – so that we can more effectively lead. If that is all it is then our leadership is really manipulation. And manipulating leaders are hardly in short supply.

I look forward to the humility conversation continuing.

Your not so humble servant,
Bill

UPDATE: Ira Williams has his own blog.

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kinnon

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

5 responses to Humility Revisited

  1. You are right on the money, Bill. The ego-centric nature of our society is really a sign of weakness. It requires defenses and an insensitivity to the needs of others. It is really a demonstration of an emotional immature person, not one who has achieved greatness.
    While I like Greenleaf’s emphasis on servant leadership, he does see it as a management technique, rather than a character trait. Technique or character, which has sustainable influence? Character. No question. Humility is the beginning point of recognizing the need for character develop, not just skills training. Its hard, but more satisfying in the end.

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  2. I’ve always been uncomfortable with a view of humility (Jesus or otherwise) that suggests one should allow others to walk all over them as a sign of humility. For some people with strong personalities or large physical frames striving for this kind of humility leads one into perpetual guilt because no matter how hard one tries, your presence always intimidates someone, somewhere.

    If however, humility is more about strength of character as you suggest, that’s an “achievable end” for most people. A complication of all this humility talk is the way in which secular culture looks at particular religious personalities and says, “that’s what humility looks like.” Thus, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, and others become paradigms for humility that the rest of us must emmulate. Don’t kid yourself. For the persons I’ve just named to achieve some of the success they had in their life time, they had a strength of character that wouldn’t be confused for humility even on their best days.

    Jesus is certainly the best biblical model for humility that we have. All I ask is that while we are holding up some of his meek and humble encounters, we give equal time to those times when he stared down the religious authorities and told them to “go to hell” in so many words (opps. Can I use that word?)

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  3. Well, as a person who has not only a strong personality, and a large physical frame and who is forever intimidating someone, somewhere I try to walk humbly.

    I constantly remind myself that I am where I am because of GOD and not myself. He has allowed me to be in a certain situation and I am just a gardener here. So I work, not for myself, but for him. But in that, people come and visit the garden and maybe they are smelling the flowers, but to me it looks like they are picking them. So I say something or do something, I react. In my reaction I may make a mistake….so what then?

    However in my humble walk, it appears that maybe I say “sorry” more often to people rather than saying “grow up.”

    But in the long run, this is much more healthier for me personally. Is that humility or just stupidity?

    I agree with Bergfalk in that Jesus is the model, I just have a serious liking to the times where Jesus just gets angry and acts out….in humility of course!

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  4. Gerry & Brad,
    I guess the question is “Who is it about?” When Jesus “reacted”, was it about him. (I actually don’t think he reacted – rather he responded appropriately. And Brad, I have no problem in you using the word “to” just not “too”.)

    When you big guys react/respond, under whose control is your strength.

    Walking in humility is not walking in stupidity – calling people to account is normally the best for them, the church and, hopefully, you the leader.

    Your ever faithful, humble and good-looking servant,
    Guillaume.

    (And according to my doctor’s appointment yesterday, I’m bigger than both of you – so if you don’t humble yourselves and agree with me, I’ll sit on you.)

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