It’s Time To Address The Confusing Issue Of Humility!

I’d like to get something off my chest! Would that be okay?

There is a big confusion within the field of “servant leadership” around the issue of humility. And this confusion creates incalculable damage. I have seen it too many times and in too many places to not address it. We have big and important work to get done in service to the good of the world. And a piece of core “servant leadership” teaching is hampering our calling!


I’ll begin with two quick points, so that my message is clear.

  1. The greatest leaders on earth have true humility. I’m not arguing with this. Jim Collins was right about this! Indeed, Jesus Christ nailed it once and for all – you want to make a big difference, lay your life down in service to that which matters more than self.
  2. Behaving with such “humility” that the people around you don’t know what you’re contributing or how you’re doing it – or even if you’re leading at all – is not true humility. The “servant leader” according to the often-quoted sage words of Lao-Tzu, “Is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’

I’ll cut to the chase. Robert Greenleaf did us all a huge favor when he brought “servant leadership” back out into the light. But his use of Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East to illustrate “servant leadership” created significant confusion. If you read Journey to the East, you know that the “servant leader” in the story was the self-effacing cook at the back of the pack. Nobody knew he was, indeed, the head of the mysterious “League.” The only thing the characters knew was that it was fantastic to be part of the “League.” Stuff just worked. People got along. Objectives were reached. But nobody knew how.

The true leader of the League in Hesse’s novel, self-effacing and “humble,” led so far from the back that he wasn’t recognized. That is, his leadership wasn’t recognized until he disappeared and then everything fell apart.

Using Journey to the East and Lao-Tzu to frame “servant leadership” produces immense confusion and underperformance. The job of true leadership isn’t to disappear in self-effacing humbleness, nor to make everybody think that they did everything themselves. The job of true leadership is, precisely, to help those who follow you understand what you as leader are doing, how it all works, why it matters, and how to master those skills and disciplines themselves. The job of true leadership – what Ken Jennings and I called “Serving Leadership” – is to so thoroughly equip those who follow that you can step aside and NOTHING falls apart.

How very false the humility to be vital to the success of the team – without them even knowing it – and then to slip away and, finally, be identified for the very important and irreplaceable person that you are.

Be a Serving Leader. Show your followers everything. Teach them to do what you do, even, as Jesus made very clear, so that they “will do greater things still.” Prepare them in mastery of all you know, and teach them to prepare those who will follow them to do the same.

Replication and multiplication is the sign of great Serving Leadership. People going on to do even greater work than you is great Serving Leadership. Achieving great results, and teaching our followers to grow up into our very capacity – and more – is great Serving Leadership. It is also true humility.

I don’t mean to rant, but I’ve watched too many leaders get their egos wrapped around the axle of false humility, and people get stunted. The work we’ve been called to do matters too much.

It’s time to lay aside Lao-Tzu and Hermann Hesse as our “heroes” of leadership. They were too tortured by fear of pride to ask the deep questions of life stewardship. They never got past themselves in their preoccupation with themselves. Trying to put self aside occupied all their attention, which is a sad irony. And it’s also a waste.

We must put self aside for real, and get work done! We must serve! And this requires the humility to lead boldly, humbly and powerfully – right out in the full light of day and for the good of the world!

I’d love to hear your responses.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.