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? 

Practice Makes Perfect

Constructivism, deconstructionism, structuralism, poststructuralism, modernity, modernism, postmodernism, postmodernity, etc. are useful methodologies that help our understanding of human nature and the way they situate themselves in the world. Habermas, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty are some of the familiar names who dominate these fields of knowledge. While studying some of these experts in the book Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory, edited by Anthony Elliott and Bryan S. Turner, I realized two things, perhaps a shared experience that shaped these men: Marxism and World War I. This paper will not delve into the intersection of these two narratives except to make a simple observation. 

“The war to end all wars,” originally idealistic, now used sardonically, was a very dark time in human history. Most wars until then were fought on a local level, tribe against tribe, nothing of the sort that involved multiple nations fighting each other under the banner of alliances. In an ideal sense, that war, as heinous as it was, exposed human depravity in unthinkable ways that it was inconceivable to imagine something much worse. 

Marxism, on the other hand, predated the great wars and appeared on the scene when no other competing views of human development, structure and functioning (social theory) existed , or at least was not in vogue. Karl Marx in the early 19th century was successful in capturing our collective imagination to frame and map our shared experiences at the time. When the “war to end all wars” failed to end wars, it was no surprise then that the thinkers following it were forced to rethink their ideas about human nature. This is, my opinion, what has led to the interdisciplinary art and science of social theory.

Fast forward to today. James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College has done a great job of introducing some of these postmodern thinkers to the project of discipleship and new ways of thinking about apologetics, albeit in subtle forms. However, his avant-garde ideas about human flourishing and behavior are not without its critics.1 Nevertheless, he brings fresh perspective to the conversation that can no longer be ignored. 

Evangelicalism has been a strong force for Christianity since the Reformation, and deservedly so. Its adherents helped us focus our attention to the primacy of God’s mission (Missio Dei), the Gospel, which literally means “good news.” This focus has lost its meaning in recent days and we as followers of Jesus must seek relevant ways to once again partner with God in his mission to save souls. For far too long we have imbibed in the notion that all our actions are a result of a process of deliberations in our minds, choosing the best options for the eventual outcome in our behaviors. This is wrong headed. This is where Smith is helpful as he directs our attention to social theorists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu who claim that there is another way of knowing and behavior is not primarily located in or generated from the mind. 

The claim that our behavior originates from other than our minds is unpopular. But there appears to be inchoate, tacit order to our actions that we can say it literally resides in the very core of our bodies. Karen Rouggly wrote a pithy reflective blog explaining this phenomenon.2 It’s important that Evangelicals warm up to the idea that we are not simply “brains on a stick” because it just might be the missing ingredient to our sanctification. 

Here is something to consider. Devoted followers of Christ seek to be like him. We read books, pray, attend conferences and conventions to better understand why we behave the way we do. If all we do is focus on the mind’s ability to go through a process of deliberation to arrive deductively at a conclusion that forces our action toward righteousness, then we are deluded. If right behavior is contingent upon right belief then we ought to expect greater sanctification in our personal lives than we have already experienced. The fact that this is not the case tells us there is another method we have not considered. 

Perhaps we ought to consider Smith’s project in his book Imagining the Kingdomwhere he talks about a process of “deformation” and looking at the “Christian perception of the world” by borrowing concepts from Merleau-Ponty such as “practognosia,” a know-how that is absorbed through our bodies; or Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus”3 that is an inculcation that works deeply in pre-reflexive ways to the glory of God. Since all truth is God’s truth, Evangelicals should not be afraid but press forward with courage to use tools like social theory to usher in the next revival.

We are not anywhere close to another world war, God forbid, but we must not take these ideas for granted. No one wants to go through terrible human suffering just to get us to adjust our thinking.

I Wonder

“I wonder…” Those words shared by Dr. Jason Clark was meant to convey a particular posture in how we study and learn. I forget exactly the context in which it was shared, but it was one of his talks meant to encourage our cohort to hold our ideas, thoughts and learnings loosely. The memory still holds me captivated to that moment when I heard it afresh in the context of higher learning. These words evoke a kind of child-like playfulness, a naiveté, an invitation to imagine something else. For me, it gently invites me to a space in my mind where I just slow down in my thinking; to pause and reflect on my thoughts. 

There was a time in my life when I tried to place ideas in sort of a binary form. Every idea in my mind went through a filter: either true or false; valid or invalid, warranted or unwarranted, etc.. My project was simply not to have gray areas in my thinking. There was simply no time and space for this. I had assumed that for anyone to be considered a good and clear thinker, he or she would have considered and settled the big ideas in philosophy and theology, i.e., nature of time, determinism vs. freewill, calvinism vs. arminianism, etc.. After all, theology was the “queen of the sciences” and once ruled the many domains of human knowledge. If there was anything important to be known, it was in these disciplines. My academic training, I’m afraid encouraged this attitude, but in the end served as a corrective.

Thank goodness I have sobered up. I no longer think this way. Besides, it was tiring and in the end intellectually dishonest. There were just too many occasions when I exclaimed “Wow! I once held this belief X so passionately and now know it to be false” that I had to stop and reevaluate how I had to come to know anything. My ego can only withstand enough of these before realizing I am in not omniscient. Pride has a way of hiding the obvious. I did not know it at the time, but I was getting introduced to intellectual humility, the virtue Richard Paul and Linda Elder write about in their chapter on Essential Intellectual Traits.1 It became clear. I realized that if I could be wrong on something I had previously not doubted, no beliefs of mine were impervious to further scrutiny. 

Did I succumb to wrong impressions about humility; the twisted notion that to be humble requires being a doormat? By God’s grace, no. Like I said earlier, I felt freer. Philip Dow in his book Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development writes “intellectually humble people value truth over their egos’ need to be right, they are freed up to admit the limits of their own knowledge.”2 As an amateur Christian apologist it is easy to feel inadequate when I cannot give adequate answers to seekers’ questions. While it is no excuse to neglect doing the hard work of study, it is liberating to admit I do not know certain things, but I can always find out. 

A prideful person does not listen to advice because of the predetermination that he or she is right. Scripture supports intellectual humility in ways we might have overlooked. Consider Proverbs 12:15 “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” Abraham Lincoln is arguably one of the best presidents in American history; famous for saving the Union, but not many know about his humility. One historian tells of a story about an occasion when Lincoln gave a direct order to Edwin Stanton that was disobeyed. Despite their differences, which was not a secret, one would have expected some deference on Stanton’s part since this was after the Civil War. Lincoln could have easily dismissed him for insubordination but instead decided to meet with him to listen to what others in Lincoln’s cabinet considered an insult. He said, “that is no insult, it an expression of opinion; and what troubles me most about it is that Stanton said it and Stanton is usually right.”3

When I think about Lincoln’s example of humility I am brought to new heights because with the Holy Spirit’s help we can be like him. And yet at the same time I am brought to new lows  because there are not enough men and women today who come close to this. The reflective ministry practitioner in me asks the following: Do I exhibit the kind of intellectual humility in my research that I do not hesitate to ask for advice from my faculty advisor? Am I willing to go where truth leads and expose prejudices for what they are? Am I willing to listen to differing opinions with a predisposition to change my mind? I wonder.

Aha and Eureka Moments

For as long as I can remember, writing well has always been a roadblock to pursuing advanced degrees—at least the kind of writing required to pass courses. Secondary education and the years in college did not prepare me well for the task of writing. Sure, we had English, Literature, Grammar, but nothing on how to write. I do not remember spending class hours on the mechanics of writing nor any of my teachers spending time helping us write better. What I do remember are the red marks on the margins critiquing style, not adhering to rules, punctuation, etc. 

By the time I got to college, a particular kind of writing was assumed. Again, no instructor in any of my classes gave us any clue as to what goals or practical ends our writing ought to be. Our syllabi had writing assignments and the assumption of everyone was that by the due date we would turn in pages with writing in it. Then the red marks and grades came in. I never failed any writing assignments but I never knew in advance if my writing would ever get an “A.” If I ended up with high marks, it was accidental. It all seemed like a mystery to me what criteria was used to evaluate our papers. Especially when one puts in a lot of time and sincere effort into it.

The anxiety over whether or not I could succeed at writing at the doctoral level had for a long time ruled out the idea of pursuing another degree beyond an MA. It still paralyzes me to think that a much longer paper will be due by the end of the Spring (2019) and wondering if I will be up to the task. I know it sounds crazy that I even bring this up since we are not even close to being done this semester and I am already worried about the next one. 

I start with this to help me frame and contrast the new things I am learning in the art and science of writing. To say this book by Derek Rowntree Learn How to Study: A Realistic Approach is groundbreaking is an understatement for me. How so? Because it destroys all the rules of writing I grew up learning. This absolutely is for me an aha and a eureka moment. I kid you not, I literally jumped out of my seat when I read the following from Rowntree:

The best one-sentence guide to effective writing I’ve ever heard is: ‘Write like you talk.’ In my own writing (e.g. as in this book), I try to put down on paper what I would say to my reader if he or she were witting there in front of me. In other words, I aim for a style that is informal and fairly conversational — but without being matey or chatty. Whether such an approach would be acceptable to your tutors is something I leave you to decide.1

That was under the subheading “Writing simply and directly.” He continues with a list of tips that was, without exaggeration, the opposite of what I was taught in high school, i.e., it’s okay and even preferred for writers to use personal pronouns such as “I”, use everyday words, use short and simple sentences, etc. I do not know nor can explain why I was taught the complete opposite of what is taught in this book. It’s not like this resource was not available when I was going through high school. This was somewhat perplexing to me that I had to ask my son who is in the 10th grade and was sitting next to me when I had my writing epiphany. I asked him if any of these things in the book was news to him. He basically said that they learned all the rules just like I did but their teachers give them leeway in their writing assignments; more freedom to express themselves. 

Listening to my son I was reminded about the proper roles rules bear on writing, and for that matter much of life. Rules are very much like fences or railings. They serve the purpose of preventing things from falling off the edge or other dangers. It does not follow that just because they are there that we should stay close to them. The spaces in the center provide safety and freedom to explore. In this case more freedom to explore and express our ideas on paper. Indeed, this realization that there is far less restrictions in writing than I had been taught is liberating. I just hope and pray our tutors agree with Rowntree on this.


How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Readwas tough reading for me. I held off writing this to the very end to avoid the real possibility that I may have misunderstood Bayard’s project. I did not want to fall into the same category of people who misjudge books simply by its cover. One only has to look no further than the one-star reviews of books found in popular online retailers such as Amazon to see that many readers are guilty of this. 

For example, there was a book titled The Benedict Optionby Rod Dreher that got published last year. The subtitle was “A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” This book received rave reviews, some positive and some negative. It quickly got on the New York Times Bestseller list. David Brooks, a writer for New York Times applauded the book and said “Already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” That is high praise. However, most Christian leaders I talked to had a different and rather unfair critique of the book. One of them said the book espoused a radical retreat from society which impugned the Christian’s calling to being salt and light. This inaccurate assessment could not be further from the truth. If one had simply read the book, he or she would learn that a temporary retreat, a “going back to basics” sort of approach, which the author clearly advocated, that refreshes and empowers believers enough to be effective agents of change for the kingdom. It is disappointing that many of Bayard’s tips on how to talk about books one has never read might lead us down this same path. 

The title I chose for this post is the word Obfuscation. This is not a very endearing characterization of a person, especially for academics. The Merriam-Webster definition of this word is “to throw into shadow; to obscure; to be evasive, unclear, or confusing.” As bad as it is, in my opinion, the author is perfectly comfortable with this. He said so himself. In an NPR interview Bayard said he was comfortable “living in the gray.”1In many places in his book he writes about “inner books,” “inner libraries,” “secret texts” a mobility to meaning that one wonders if there is a point to reading anything at all. 

It is one thing to acknowledge that there are gray areas in ascertaining the truth of a matter, but it is quite different to be settled in it. The flaw in Bayard is that in describing the lack of apodictic certainty of truth he has prescribed the lack of any truth. In other words, just because a thing is difficult to grasp, now therefore there is nothing to grasp. That does not follow. A good example of the chaos and folly that attend this kind of thinking is illustrated by Bayard in the game of Humiliation. 

“The game thus consist in humiliating yourself as much as possible: the more you humiliate yourself, the more likely you are to win. But there is an additional twist, which is that victory also depends on sincerity. To win, you must not only give the name of a well-known book, but also convince the others that you have told the truth about not having read it. If you give the name of a book that is too well know, such that it is actually implausible for you not to have read it, the other players have the right to reject your statement. The chance of winning is thus proportional to the players’ trust in the person confessing his ignorance, and so also in proportion to the genuineness of the player’s humiliation”2

Notice that there really is no objective to this silly parlor game. It only ends in chaos since there is no grounding for truth. Lies don’t exist unless truth first exist. One must always assume the truth of a thing before it is shown to be false. That’s a logical order and cannot be breached. Otherwise we all start with skepticism and that’s an unlivable world. In this game no one wins and it only ends in futility and destruction. In fact we do find that one of the professors thinking he won the game actually lost the game, even more, his reputation and his job.

If there is another alternative to how we can talk about books we have not read, allow me to suggest one. This advice comes from my personal experience having managed a bookstore for over seventeen years. The first step is to contact publishers of books that fit your interests, and get on their mailing list. Indicate that you want to start receiving their catalogs which usually gets printed a few times a year. For example, if your interests lie in Christian academic titles, you’ll want to obtain catalogs from IVP Academic, Eerdman’s, Baker Academic, etc. Not only do you get to know about books that have yet to be printed, but the descriptions, table of contents and other promotional material contained in these catalogs will be surprisingly enough to engage in fruitful discussions about a myriad of topics. Collecting and perusing these catalogs actually do start to create the real inner library—similar to the one Bayard talks about. Except this one has its basis in reality. 

Own It

This blog post will be a little personal in a sense that it will reveal one of the reasons I decided to pursue this doctorate. I had looked at several DMin programs and each one of them had one thing in common: rigid, set coursework. I am confident this kind of learning is effective for some, but I felt this approach, as seems to be the case in the American system of doctorate-granting institutions, would not work for me. Reading anything by Mortimer Adler is super helpful. He was one of the most influential philosophers and educators of the 20th century, and so anything he writes is worth paying attention to and in this reading, turned out to be affirming. Affirming in the sense that it validated my expectations and recent experiences in researching a topic I have been passionate about for some time.

The section I spent most of my time understanding and rereading was the section on “Five Steps in Synoptical Reading”inHow to Read a Book.  I had to do this because the authors said something quite intriguing and subversive for reasons I still have yet to fully understand. He wrote “…it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around.”1 I had a head-scratching moment, puzzled at what I had just read. Did the authors just tell me that I, the lowly learner, would tell the experts what I think they mean by using some of their own terms? I certainly did not expect this and Adler himself mention that this was one of the most difficult steps in synoptic reading.

Even though that point remains unclear, some of what seems wrong turned out to be a welcomed learning experience. I had been preparing for a talk that was scheduled to be delivered this past summer. The topic I studied was on culture based on an understanding of Jesus’ parable of the sower found in Matthew 13. There are many commentators, scholars and preachers who prepare sermons covering the meaning of the seed and the sower, but hardly any mention the significance of the soil. Long story short, I asserted the strong link between soil and culture. This set me off to explore the world of anthropology and sociology. I ended up reading dozens of experts on their definitions of culture. Before long I felt I had mastery over the subject matter and acquired a kind of authority about it, at least enough for a 40 minute presentation. So much so that I imagined myself tutoring these scholars of culture and helping fill in knowledge-gaps in their thinking. Now this may not be true, but it definitely felt like that. And of course, prior experience and familiarity helped but I believe this is as close as I will get in understanding Adler’s admonition to bring authors to our terms.

This new way of thinking taught me valuable lessons:

  1. One can be an expert of sorts on a particular subject if he or she has read and understood a good set of books on a particular subject.
  2. Reading between the lines, one can pick up implicit assertions that support and give credence to the topic being studied.
  3. Not one expert knows everything about one subject. This gives others an opportunity to offer other solutions to problems.

One might think that it would be beneath himself for a philosophical and theological luminary such as Adler to write a practical book on how to read one. But amidst the how-tos and hands-on of reading there is a strong ethical lesson for us to consider. One such lesson is his admonition to be polite when we disagree with an author. An oft-quoted line by Adler is “You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I understand,’ before you can say any of the following things: ‘I agree,’ or ‘I disagree,’ or ‘I suspend judgement’”2This wisdom cannot be overstated. The cultural milieu of today is full of people who are argumentative because they lack the maturity and skills to put together good arguments. We simply do not take the time and effort, as Adler would say, to understand each other. It has come to a critical point that we are numbed by current events and trust in our leaders is at a low point.3This should not be the case, especially among Christians.

If we are to be good ambassadors for Christ, we must remember to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”4For followers of Christ it is imperative to consider this as our calling. Our Lord speaks a blessing for peacemakers (Mt. 5:9). Proverbs encourages us to speak for those who have no voice (Prov. 31:8) and Peter exhorts us to engage in discourse with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15).5

As I have stated in the beginning, this DMin program has a personal quality to it. My hope and prayer is that as I go through the rigor of study that I “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever!”6