John Dickson’s message today on humility is the most insightful and helpful I’ve ever heard on the subject. Dickson is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Sr. Minister, St. Andrews Anglican Church, Sydney, Australia. Here’s a brief overview of his talk, and below are my notes:
Are prestigious titles and powerful positions prerequisites for impactful leadership? “You don’t need structural authority to be a leader of influence,” according to historian and social commentator John Dickson. “The leader’s strongest tool is humility,” he says. “It intensifies credibility.” Dickson, the author of Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (May 2011), investigates the crucial role humility plays in a leader’s life—and its theological, historical, and practical implications. Dickson issues this challenge: Navigate the complex intersection of leadership and humility, and learn to lead through persuasion, example, and influence rather than positional authority. Dickson offers practices to help you cultivate deeper authentic humility on your team—and in your soul.
“Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status and use your influence for the good of others. It is to hold your power in service of others.”
The best leaders are marked by humility. Humility is what makes the great, great.
5 evidences of this:
1. Humility is common sense
It is a reflection of the deep structure of reality. None of us is an expert at everything. What we don’t know and can’t do, far exceeds what we do know and can do.
2. Humility is beautiful
It is a simple psychological reality: we are more attracted to the great who are humble, than to the great who know it and want to know us too. “Presumption diminishes greatness. Humility enhances greatness; is greatness.” The same is true in any context.
But did you know that humility has not always been admired? In ancient Rome, humility was a negative word associated with defeat. Humility before the gods and emperors was advised, but humility towards an equal was regarded as ill-informed. One of the prized virtues was “love of honor.”
Academic research found that a humility revolution took place in the middle of the first century. Not only because of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ crucifixion changed the way people understood greatness and humility. The cross of Christ was contrary to the understanding of greatness in the ancient world. The early Christians had to deal with this question: Did his crucifixion mean he wasn’t as great as they thought? No. They realized: “If the greatest man we have ever known sacrificed his life on the cross, then greatness must consist in willing sacrifice and holding power for the good of others.” And of course this is Matthew 20:28 and Phil 2:3-8.
Interview with a researcher: “The admiration of humility comes entirely from Christian influence. Entirely.” Western culture has been profoundly shaped by the cross of Christ — even long after it ceased to be explicitly Christian.
3. Humility is generative
It generates new knowledge, new abilities. The logic is easy: the proud person (say, at a conference like this) will go away with less than the humble person, who is looking to learn. This is even true in science. Think about how science works: it is basically a humble confession that you can’t just observe the world and describe it; you have to test your theory.
The scientific revolution is the result of a humility revolution. Humility generates science.
True also in business. John Kotter tracked the careers of 115 of his students from the Harvard Business School. One student was average in class, but ended up being an incredible leader. Lucky break? No. What took him further was his humility. “Confronting his mistakes, he minimized the arrogant attitudes that often accompany success.” He watched more closely and listened more closely than others. “The humble place is the place of growth.”
4. Humility is persuasive
The textbook on persuasion for 2,000 years boils down what persuades to 3 things: logos (intellectual component), pathos (aesthetic or emotional), and ethos (character of the persuader). Aristotle said: the character is the most significant. “We believe good-hearted people to a greater extent and more quickly than we do others on all subjects in general and completely so in cases where there is not exact knowledge but room for doubt. Character is almost, so to speak, the controlling factor in persuasion.”
5. Humility is inspiring
“The real power of effective leadership is maximizing other people’s potential, which inevitably demands ensuring they get the credit. When our ego won’t let us build another person up, then the effectiveness of the organization goes down.”
When leaders appear aloof and unapproachable, we admire them, but we don’t imitate them. But humble leaders: We don’t just admire them; we aspire to be like them.
Four tools of leadership: ability, authority, character, persuasion. Some of the most inspiring leaders in history had no structural authority. They just had truckloads of ability, character, and persuasion. “Sometimes you don’t need the power of the hire and fire. You don’t need armies to change empires or individuals.”