Humble Leadership

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?