Harnessing the Hope of Humility: Timeless Wisdom for Today

basin_Flood G.

Photo Credit: basin, by Flood G., Flickr

In seasons of political posturing, humility rarely is modeled by current and aspiring politicians. But into such seasons, the hope of humility stands in stark contrast and calls for us to harness this hope for the good of our communities

In this post, let’s journey back to the time of Jesus Christ in order to explore the timeless wisdom of servant-hearted humility.

A Mother’s Request

Nearly 2000 years ago, a mother motivated by love for her boys made a request. She asked Jesus to allow her sons to sit in the places of honor at His right and left in His kingdom. As might be expected, the other ten disciples did not look favorably on this parental power play.

But Jesus harnessed the occasion as an opportunity to teach a kingdom reality: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26).

We find here a profound reality in Jesus’ teaching—humility in the form of service is at the heart of leadership in the economy of Jesus. One of my colleagues notes that at its heart, this passage is calling leaders to positions of low status and high service.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

The low status & high service motif of Jesus was not mere rhetoric, however. Jesus lived and modeled this principle. Take, for instance, one of the most powerful sermons ever—the sermon preached with a basin and a towel.

In John 13, we find Jesus at a Passover feast with His disciples. With divine audacity, Jesus rises from the meal, wraps a towel around his waist, and stoops low, with heavenly humility, as He begins to wash His disciples’ feet. We see in this amazing account the words of Jesus made alive: “…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus lived the kingdom principle of low status & high service.

The Hope of Humility

The timeless teaching of Jesus that modeled and called His followers to leadership marked by low status and high service stands in stark contrast the inverted high status and low service motif modeled by so many leaders in our day. What such leaders fail to realize, however, is that in the case of humble service it is not only good wisdom but also good business.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great asks, “What catapults a company from merely good to truly great?” His answer is refreshing—leaders who combine fierce resolve and humility are key.

It’s often viewed as counter-intuitive. Usually humility is associated with pushovers rather than leaders of great companies. But amazing as this is, biblical humility is just what the cultural and corporate doctors have ordered.

Harnessing the Hope of Humility

So how is the hope of humility to be harnessed?  Let me offer three “prescriptions.”

Prescription 1: Be an Apprentice in the School of Humility

The first prescription is to be an apprentice in the School of Humility. Humility is by its very nature something that is learned through participation. 2 Chronicles 7:14 calls us to this apprentice-like participation: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” Harnessing the hope of humility begins as a participating apprentice.

Prescription 2: Follow the Man from Galilee

In the School of Humility, our apprenticeship is under the Master Practitioner—Jesus, the servant from Galilee. When Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, He called them to a life-trajectory of humble service saying, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Following the Master Servant furthers a harnessing of the hope of humility.

Prescription 3: Go to the Grace

The final prescription is simply this: Go to the grace. In 1 Peter 5:5, Peter writes, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  Do you wish to harness the hope of humility?  Go to God’s graceful place of humility. You’ll be glad you did.


 

It’s difficult to imagine how one person’s actions of humility and service could change the course of history, but this is exactly what happened through the life of Jesus as He began to turn the world right side up. Applying these prescriptions will help us begin the process of aligning the course of our lives with His. Applying these prescriptions will help us to harness the hope of humility.

C.S. Lewis on Empowerment — Exploring Leadership Development

C. S. Lewis, Sigurdur Jonsson, Flickr

Photo Credit: C. S. Lewis, Sigurdur Jonsson, Flickr

Empowerment is vital for effective leadership. It is core to most of our relationships…from teaching, to parenting, to leading.

Leading People to Not Need Us

In discussing love and giving, C.S. Lewis implicitly engages the practice of empowerment. Lewis writes:

The proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.”

Celebrating Growth toward Independence

This principle is not only essential for effective parenting or teaching, it is also essential for effective leading. It raises a heart-searching question for us as leaders: Are we leading our people to dependency on our leadership, or are we leading them to a place of independence and interdependence?

Recognizing Leader Struggles Along the Way

Organizational leaders who hunger for power and position will have difficulty leading followers to a place of independence. Organizational leaders who struggle with personal insecurity will struggle to free followers to this place as well.

Secure and follower-focused leaders recognize that it is a win for both their followers and their organizations to create pathways where leaders may be both developed and empowered for service.

Finding the Reward of Empowerment

Lewis continues to press his argument:

Thus a heavy task is laid upon the Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say ‘They need me no longer’ should be our reward.”

All too often, our saying “they need me no longer” is viewed as a threat rather than a reward. But true love—love that holds the importance of others and their goals alongside our own goals—will lead in such a way that both leader and follower values, goals, aspirations, and dreams may be pursued.

Developing and Deploying Emerging Leaders

In reality, leaders who get the concept of developing and deploying their people do not work themselves out of a job, for such leaders are constantly creating new opportunities for new developing leaders. Great leaders create space for others to flourish. Great leaders identify potential, develop this potential, and release this potential into new roles and opportunities.

Leadership development does not need to be a zero sum game. Thriving organizations and entrepreneurial communities benefit from a regular flow of developed and empowered leaders released into new opportunities.

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How are you wired as a leader around these themes? Do you tend to hold onto authority over others, or are you wired to identify, develop, and release talent in the cause of your organization’s mission? Great leaders empower their people!

Follower Motivation and Leader Humility

Humanity, Love, Respect (B.S. Wise, Flickr)

Photo Credit: Humanity, Love, Respect, by B.S. Wise, Flickr

The challenges leaders face in developing motivation and empowerment among followers are many.

There may be challenges in the interpersonal or dyadic relationship between individual leaders and followers. There may be challenges within the team or group environment at any of the forming, storming, norming, or performing stages. There may be challenges at the level of organizational systems within which leaders and followers are embedded. Or, there may be challenges external to the organization such as a difficult economic environment straining follower and leader expectations of performance.

Beginning with Leader Self-Reflection

While each of these levels may be challenges to motivation and empowerment, leaders should begin by considering their own role in leadership challenges. In a previous post I argued that Effective Leadership = Effective Self-Leadership. When leaders face challenges in motivating and empowering followers it is important to first look to themselves as leaders—to begin seeing how they personally may have contributed to demotivating followers. The Bible makes this priority personal: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).

As a leader,
are you prone to look first to the proverbial speck in a follower’s eye,
or the log in our own eye?

Avoiding the Fundamental Attribution Error

In challenging times it is easy to look to others or our environment and assign fault to them. This tendency is described by some as the fundamental attribution error or actor-observer bias. But thoughtful leaders are self-reflective leaders. They resist the fundamental attribution error and consider how they personally may be contributing to a problem and how followers may be impacted by their environment. They are leaders willing to look first to their contribution to a situation and work out from there to other relevant contributing factors.

Desiring Personal Humility

In light of such logic, we might argue that the greatest challenge to motivating and empowering followers is me and you. It is about self-reflection and self-leadership first. Jim Collin’s notes this point in his book Good to Great. At the heart of Collins’ work is the concept of level five leadership. Collins describes Level Five Leaders as having a unique blend of both professional will and personal humility. With such a blend, a leader has the self-confidence and self-efficacy to own that they do not have all of the answers and that they have less control than they may have originally thought. They also are willing to look into the mirror and see what their contribution is to the lack of motivation among followers.

Pressing Forward with Personal Humility and Follower Motivation

As leaders engage in personal reflection, embrace a spirit of humility, and acknowledge their own contribution to challenges … powerful result emerges. Rather than thinking less of leaders, followers generally grow in their respect for leaders who demonstrate authenticity and a willingness to own their part in challenges. Along this path, leaders begin by truly recognizing where actual power lies—with the wider organizational membership and not just leaders. From this place, leaders are able to motivate followers in authentic and meaningful ways. This motivation may take the form of genuinely valuing and developing people. It may also take the form of channeling followers to orient their attention on vision and performance that matters to them and the organization.

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Leader self-reflection and humility is a key starting point in making such motivation and empowerment come to life. Have you seen positive examples of leader humility in your organizations? What impact did this have on the community and the overall motivation experienced by organizational members?