Thursday, March 22, 2012


"Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.

More simply, you could say

the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others." Humilitas, page 24.

This is John Dickson's definition of humility, in his recent book, which aims to explore the ancient meanings of humility and it's role today. It was transformed from it's roots in humiliation, an imposition, to a loftier virtue springing out of choice.

Dickson gives many examples of great or famous people who have lead with humility. They are people who have no need to boast or to remind others of their power, instead they act graciously to everyone. Despite insisting he has few credentials to teach on leadership, John Dickson has provided a really clear exposition of the role of humility in good leadership. Perhaps my own ignorance of the leadership literature is evident in this comment. But what more can I say other than I learnt something and that there is a level of scholarship and understanding which is needed to explain concepts simply. John Dickson has that gift.

I wondered if the book was an attempt to sell humility by explaining its value - ie. it makes a good leader into a great leader, so if you're keen on being a great leader, get some humility. Despite the history of bad press, there's some evidence it is the secret behind some business success stories.

There is an uncomfortable tension about finding the reason for humility in greater achievement. I think it discounts the value of humility in small communities and in relative obscurity. It buys into the myth that true human value is found in fame and world-renowned attainment. I've reminded myself before that there is value in living a quiet life and that being seen by the one who sees everything is what matters. What is the value of famous leader humilitas to me? Of course that is a caricature, but it is a possible end-point of this book. And perhaps it is the danger of concentrating on the powerful to explore humility.

Having said that, there is no simple way to explain humility, without encountering paradox. The biblical archetype of humility is Jesus. He began this humility paradigm shift from humiliation to the choice of power surrendered in humility. He is the most powerful being we can imagine, and yet he suffered degradation and was murdered. He never doubted his purpose or his mission, and yet he wept in pain. He rebuked people who got it wrong, but forgave sinners.

And I like John Dickson's upfront way of acknowledging the paradox. He's right, the idea of writing a book on humility and holding oneself up as an authority on it is a little ridiculous. But he tackles that one in the introduction, and aligns himself among us - the ones who struggle to grasp the wind. True humility is elusive and fleeting, and difficult to pursue without running right past it. I believe it is found in seeking to serve others rather than in seeking to be humble.

1 comment:

Mommy Emily said...

oh kath. you always make me think. thank you. this quiet life is something i've been longing for, lately.