Humility gets a bad rap these days and it’s no wonder it often gets dismissed or regarded as antithetical to leadership. We tend to associate the concept of leadership with success, victory, and influence. We almost always view and expect our leaders to be assertive, self-confident, and popular. Humility is rarely ever near the top of that list. The word humility itself sounds so much like humiliation, a word associated with losing, shame, and disgrace.
No matter how much we try to brush it aside these days, humility remains the core foundation of good leadership. Take, for example, the timeless leadership examples of St. Francis of Assisi or St. Mother Teresa. In their response to the call of leadership, their immediate response was filled with genuine humility. And they remained humble in their response until the end. When people asked why God picked them, their reply was that God had chosen the lowliest and the weakest so that people would know that their work is possible because of God’s guiding grace. Their work, their prayer, and their practice of humility kept their egos from taking over. They made sure that the glory they attained in their work was God’s and not theirs. And people were drawn to their work and their leadership because of their humility. They were and still are the ultimate “influencers” with millions of followers because of the authenticity of their humility.
Ancient Greek philosophers said that humility is a meta-virtue — it serves as the foundation for all other virtues, such as wisdom, compassion, courage and forgiveness. Mother Teresa, whose life was an illustration of that principle, said: “Humility is the mother of all virtues: purity, charity and obedience.” And these are qualities that we often look for in our leaders. Leadership demands authenticity and purity of heart, self-giving generosity, and obedience to the laws and the will of God.
Humility is foundational as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, the Saints’ and our ultimate model of leadership. Christ humbly came down from His kingdom in heaven to raise up the lowly. As Jesus told his disciples: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
A body of groundbreaking leadership research studies is finding that leaders are powerful when they are humble. Yet, this is something that the Saints have known all along. St. Augustine, in the fourth century, said that if we wish to rise, we must begin by descending: “You plan to build a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”
With today’s increased emphasis on the self, leadership demands us to steadfastly turn our focus from the self to the other. The virtue of humility keeps our egos in check so that we can focus on the needs of others.
Humility demands that we recognize our vulnerability and see what the proud have difficulty seeing — our own limitations and weaknesses. Humility serves as the foundation to facilitate our growth and improvement. We are humbled by the work for it is our vocation (vocàre in Latin which means “voice”), a calling from God. And we have a deep respect for the role assigned to us as leaders. To gain the respect and the trust of our followers, we must humbly accept our vulnerability and recognize that we need help–God’s help and the help of the brothers and sisters that we are leading. That opens us all up to the humbling realization that we are in this together and that we must work together to accomplish the work before us. Together, we prayerfully submit ourselves to God’s good will.
As we put leaders in position of power, before we get swayed and blinded by the most assertive, the most self-confident, and the most popular, may we take into consideration the quiet power of humility. May we never forget that quiet but persistent call to holiness.
As Pope Francis said: “Humility is the way to holiness.” We pray that our leaders lead with humility and with utmost respect for the position of leading us to our ultimate eternal destination, to wholeness and to holiness.
The one who boasts in the Lord gives in to proclamation, not self-exaltation. “I will sing of your salvation” is his most likely line, his recurrent refrain. The one who boasts in the Lord is led to confession, not to self-glorification. The latter is what the scribes were wont to do – “parade around in their robes and accept marks of respect in public.” – Fr. Chito Dimaranan
About the Author:
BJ Gonzalvo, PhD, is a psychologist and an immigrant from the Philippines (now living in Washington) whose research focuses on retracing the indigenous roots of his core value of kapwa to help reframe and rediscover the sacredness of our interconnectedness. His writing, where he often integrates culture, psychology, and spirituality, has appeared in Northwest Catholic, Busted Halo, FilCatholic, and Mind & Spirit. He is the author of Lead Like the Saints (Paulines, 2019) and an upcoming book, Gift of Kapwa (2021). @firstname.lastname@example.org