What makes a great leader? A few years ago, I asked a few colleagues at work to tell me what they thought were the attributes of a great leader. As you can expect, I got a wide variety of responses, from motivator to inclusive to risk taker and problem solver. In this new series on leadership attributes, I will write about several of these attributes. The first one will be humility.
Jim Collins, author of the business classic Good to Great, in looking for what made the difference in companies that were able to move from “good to great” and sustain that greatness, identified two distinct characteristics among the leaders of those companies, one of which was humility. At first, the importance of humility seems surprising. Think of some of the leaders you have worked with. Would the attribute of humility describe them? I hope so, but I’m not sure. Or consider some of our national political leaders. Humility may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of them.
So why is humility a key leadership attribute? First of all, let’s be clear on what humility is. A dictionary definition of humility is: Having a modest or low view of one’s own importance.
Tim Keller, in his book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, states that the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.
The Bible has much to say about humility. Here are just a few verses:
- God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. James 4:6
- Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4
- Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. 1 Peter 5:6
- Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Colossians 3:12-13
John Maxwell writes that he believes humility is a character trait that every leader should value and develop. He sees humility as an everyday choice to credit God for our blessings, and others for our successes. He tells us that humble leaders understand their place in light of God and others. He goes on to state that humility is the antidote to the pride that can come from recognition and fame. By making an everyday choice to credit God for our blessings, and others for our successes, we remain open to continued growth as leaders, and give honor to team members when they succeed.
I recently listened to Tim Keller’s sermon “The Upper Room” from Luke 22:14-34. In the sermon, Keller gives some unique insights on humble leadership. He asks why Jesus would choose Peter to be leader of the new church? At dinner the night before his crucifixion, Jesus foretells that Peter is going to fail him, be a coward and show a lack of integrity. But he also tells Peter that he has prayed for him, and that Peter will turn again and repent. Jesus then tells Peter to strengthen the brethren, and that he is going to be the leader.
Out in the world, the leaders are those with the biggest successes. However, in Jesus’ priorities, the leaders are those like Peter who have messed up and failed publicly, but have repented and humbly thrown themselves on the grace of God.
So, what might it practically look like to be a humble leader? Here are just 10 traits of a humble leader. A humble leader:
- Leads to serve
- Is open to feedback
- Asks for assistance from others
- Admits their mistakes and asks for forgiveness when appropriate
- Keeps their ego in check
- Realizes that all of their gifts and talents are God given
- Is selfless, thinking of others first
- Finds joy in giving credit to others
- Treats others with respect
- Leads by example
What would you add to this list as traits for a humble leader?
Next time we’ll look at character as a leadership attribute.