Without mistake, the Advent and Christmas season holds profound lessons on humility and leadership. Writers and painters and composers have highlighted these themes of humility for two thousand years—the lowly manger, the poor and dispossessed young couple who were unable to find a decent place for their child to be born, the shepherds and sheep and donkeys and stable. But there are tricky paradoxes in these humility lessons—booby traps, even—and the pathway to learning these lessons is far from straight.
Leaders who are humble are amazing to watch and wonderful to follow. Harvard Business Review goes so far as to claim “the best leaders are humble leaders” citing a recent study to back it up. So, when I say that there are paradoxes and even booby traps in the pursuit of humility, I am not questioning the rightness of this pursuit. Researcher Jim Collins inadvertently stumbled upon this subject some years ago, discovering (in Good to Great) that the highest-impact leaders on earth possessed a most startling quality—these incredible over-achievers were genuinely humble human beings. Paradoxically, however, Collins soon began to lament that he didn’t know how to help leaders actually become more humble, or even to become more humble himself.
We gaze at the virtue of humility and know to the bottom of our soul that the world needs more leaders who possess this virtue. We stare at our own lives and wish that the opinion of others and the gaining of credit and fame meant less to us than it actually does. And at some point, we realize that aspiring to be humble, and becoming more humble, are not the same. “Try to be more humble!” we say. And the more we try, the more stilted and unreal we become.
I have an acquaintance who interjects the word, “humbly” into his sentences, often more than once, much like the person who interjects “like,” or “um” into their speech. “I think, humbly, that it might be a good idea, humbly, for us to rethink that contract, and, humbly, see if we could get a far better deal. Humbly.”
Humility, as Oswald Chamber has drolly noted, can quickly become a pious fraud, and often does. I suspect that this is the reason Jim Collins laments that though he discovered the “Level-5 leader”—a leader who possesses humility while nimbly cleaning the clocks of their competitors—he can’t seem to make progress in teaching someone to become one of those kinds of leaders.
Bearing all of this in mind, and taking my cues from this Advent and Christmas season, I’d like to suggest two practical actions and one useful insight that will, for sure, guide you in your pursuit of becoming a better, more humble leader. These actions and this insight are absolutely about “humble leadership,” but in an indirect way.
Let me start with an analogy. If I offered you guidance on becoming “more healthy,” I wouldn’t say anything to you about how to feel or appear more healthy. Rather, I’d offer you some actionable suggestions on things you can actually do that will lead you to health. In due course, if my suggestions were sound, you’d feel healthier, and you’d even appear healthy to others. But health, like humility, is a by-product of other things. It’s no wonder Collins doesn’t know how to make a humble leader; the pathway that his Level-5 leaders took to their success was not straight, and I daresay that those leaders weren’t actually endeavoring to become humble anyway.
Action 1: Reflect on Your Life’s Purpose
Take time out over these next few weeks to meditate, reflect, even pray on the fact that your life does not exist for you. Yes, I’m calling this an “action,” though it is an interior kind of action. I’m suggesting that you exercise your mind, your heart, and your resolve toward a firm embrace of the fact that you exist to serve and strengthen others. The mother of Jesus, as found in all the traditional holiday songs, is revered for her willingness to be used for purposes that were larger than herself. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said to the Angel in the Christmas story. “May it happen to me according to your word.”
Mary is not playing the victim here. And when we harness our will to the proposition that we exist to serve others, we aren’t playing the victim, either. Mary exercised her will by actively affirming—meditating, reflecting, and praying—that her life belonged to purposes that were greater than herself. Following her lead must be our first action. We must get straight on this point. We must be fierce and firm with ourselves. We must resolve to give ourselves to purposes that are greater than self-interest. This is not weak, and it is not passive. “You were born to make a difference,” a main character in The Serving Leader says. And the (long and winding) road to making a difference begins with a hairpin curve, namely laying our life down for a great and noble purpose.
Action 2: Commit to Serve Others
Double down on your commitment to serve others, and actively look for specific ways to do so. What do your people need to be more effective? Do your best to provide it! What do your partners and investors need to gain confidence in the enterprise or the team you are leading? Serve their needs by doing great work! What do the people you serve—your customers, students, patients, clients—expect and need from you? Why have they chosen to do business with you, to attend your school, to visit your church? Find out, and deliver excellent service and value to them!
“Whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant.” These words were spoken by the son of Mary, the stable-born boy who began his life a poor, dispossessed Asian baby and who, almost immediately, became an African refugee. Step back from these words about becoming great by serving (which Collin’s research shows to be eminently sensible), and you’ll realize that this is exactly and precisely how reality works. At the root of all value creation—all effective leadership, all successful human endeavor—is a commitment to serve. The pathway to greatness is serving. There is no successful business or endeavor on earth, no profit, no growth, no value creation, no difference making—no greatness— without serving.
Who can you serve better? How can you bring greater service? What can you do to help the people around you more? How can you grow them into greater capability? What do they need and want most from you? As you serve others more intentionally, your leadership and impact will grow as a by-product.
Insight: Humble, Serving Leaders Make Room for Others to Become More
Sucking all the oxygen out of the room by your grand entrance does not encourage men and women to become more than they are. Raw power and overwhelming displays of authority make us shrink and cringe. One can gain the obedience and subservience of others this way, but not the growth and development of extraordinary contributors, bold risk takers, and courageous difference makers.
In this final leadership insight from Advent and Christmas, we see by way of analogy why men and women become powerful role players inside organizations that have serving leaders at the helm. Our capacity to seek the good of others and to serve the growth of those around us requires that we make room for them to become more. The “humility of God,” who made a most modest entrance into human history, makes room for us—hapless, hopeless human bumblers that we are—to grow up and stand up and show up big in the world.
Humble leaders are not particularly interested in humility, at least not in the navel-gazing way that so many fawn over this virtue. Humble leadership is interested in making a difference for others, taking steps to serve others, making room for the growth of others. They’re thinking about the job that needs to get done. They’re thinking about the customers who need to be served. They’re thinking about the people they need to grow. To say this more simply, they’re not thinking about themselves, and they certainly aren’t losing much sleep wondering whether people see them as humble.
Of course, over time, “humble” is exactly the word others begin to associate with them. But “humble” isn’t what great leaders are aiming for. Giving up their lives for purposes that truly matter—that’s their focus. Serving so that others might grow, leading so that purposes might be fulfilled, dying, even, so that others might live.
This Holiday season, let’s double down on that! Let’s get even clearer on the point that we aren’t on earth to serve ourselves. Let’s look for even greater ways that we can serve those around us. And let’s make room for the people we serve to grow, always watching for ways that they can step up into greater acts of their own serving.
Have a very Merry Christmas, friends! This is a grand season of holy days! Do the season proud by serving others!
John Stahl-Wert is co-author of the best-selling book “The Serving Leader,” an expert at growing great leaders, and President of Newton Institute. Learn more at www.newtoninstitute.com
Photo by Gino Santa Maria (shutterstock.com)