RLL #13: “Human Nature and Leadership, Part 2: Humility and Reason to Hope:
“Pride is the chief cause of misery in every nation and in every family since the world began.” So states C.S. Lewis, and as we examined last week, pride really is at the root of every problem that we face: laziness, selfishness, ignorance, apathy, and all the rest. The problems in the world are not hard to see when we watch the news, or listen to people chatting in the check-out lines at the grocery store, or when we simply reflect on much of what has occurred in the past year. So much of what we hang on to is negative, and it is the result of pride, either our own or someone else’s. This week especially, though, we get to see and remember that there is also hope. There is joy. There is love. And these things stem from humility.
A couple of years ago, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a family friend that we used to attend church with. She was calling to tell me about something that had happened at our children’s school that day. There was a boy in my daughter’s class whose parents were going through a particularly harsh divorce: both sides angry, both sides hurting, and children unfortunately caught in between. One of the results of this was that this boy was unable to get many of his personal items, such as clothing, from one parent’s house, causing him to have to wear the same clothes to school for most of the week. When other students caught on to this, they began to tease him and give him a hard time. According to my family friend (and, later, the boy’s father, who also contacted me to relate this story, not knowing that our friend had already done so), the only person who stood up for the boy was my daughter, one of the smallest (I’m only 5’3”, and my kids are also pretty small) and youngest students in her class. She told the bullies to back off, and she tried to encourage the boy who was being teased, and she did all of this without any prompting from anyone.
Now, aside from the obvious “I want to brag on my child” (which is pride, by the way, but not necessarily the destructive pride we saw last week), what is the point of telling you this? The point is that what Carly (my daughter) did is exactly what we need to be doing as leaders: focusing on helping others, without regard to ourselves. She risked also being made fun of (especially since these kids are in middle school, for many people the most brutal part of childhood), ostracized by her own friends, etc, to stand up for a boy who needed an ally. Had she been thinking of her own social standing, popularity, etc, she might have chosen other than she did. However, because of wanting to help, wanting to serve, and (without realizing it) wanting to lead through that service, she stood up for someone who needed it. And isn’t that also what leadership is all about?
As I am fond of quoting C.S. Lewis, I will do so yet again: he says that “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less... Humility is simply not thinking of yourself at all.” Humility is focusing on other people rather than on ourselves, and it is because of humility that hope exists.
Here’s the truth: we are ALL broken, imperfect, and fallen. We all make mistakes. We like to think that we’re the kid who will stand up for others when they need it, but the truth is we’re also just as capable of being the bully making fun of someone in a weaker position than ourselves. Everyday we hear stories of pain suffering, abuse, corruption, and we experience many of these things in our own lives. The good news is that the pain and suffering isn’t the whole story. But in order to move beyond it, we must first come to accept a very difficult truth: WE are the problem in the world. Our selfishness, our pride, are the things that lead us to ill-treat other people, both in individual relationships and in large groups. Just as a quick exercise: how many of us can point to a relationship that has been damaged in the past year directly as a result of differing political views on some topic? This is because both sides are more interested in being right than in doing right things.
The only solution for these problems is the humility to admit that we don’t have all the answers. How do we do this, and why should we? Let me hit on a few quick points that are very appropriate in this context of Christmas.
STAY HUMBLE--In the 16th century a man named John Bradford witnessed a group of criminals being led to the gallows. In a moment of pure insight, he realized that he was, in his human nature, not any different than those men (a remarkable insight for a time period defined by strict social and class hierarchy), saying to himself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” This is true of you and of me: we are humans, and therefore we are broken, and we are capable of all manner of wrongdoing. And the more we think we are NOT capable of those things, the more danger we’re in of doing them. Why? Because, as the great philosopher (and creator of the ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ comic strips) Bill Watterson says, “We’re all someone else to someone else.” Remember that, as humans, we are prone to sin, to error, to selfishness. And because of that, we need to be reminded every day to choose the good, to do good.
CHOOSE THE GOOD--I have a tendency to put my foot in my mouth. Just this week, I was in the grocery store with my wife, and I began a sentence about something happily nostalgic with the words, “What was her name…?” (Hint: gentlemen, this is almost NEVER a good way to begin that kind of sentence.) After realizing how that sounded, I was able to begin again, clarify what I was talking about, and we moved on after chuckling at my tendency to unintentionally gaff verbally. This happens so often that we have a phrase to use whenever I think that what I have to say may come across differently than I intend it to: “I mean nice.” That essentially means, “If this can be taken more than one way, I mean it in the most positive way possible.” My wife knows that I want to love and honor her, and so she has developed a habit of choosing to believe the best about what I’m trying to say and do. Imagine how different all of our interactions would be as leaders if we simply choose to believe the best about other people. I’ll write more about this another time, but in brief, I do NOT mean that we should naively ignore problems, warning signs, etc. But in general, let’s choose to believe the absolute best that we can about others, remembering that we also are human and therefore prone to make mistakes.
SERVE AND LEARN--as we’ve seen in previous posts, leadership is about serving others to help them become the best they can be, and to do that we must constantly be learning more about them so we can help them better. In humility, we also will learn more about ourselves: we’ll see our own shortcomings and flaws more clearly, as we stop focusing on ourselves. This may sound counter-intuitive, but think about it logically: how many of us, when we’re making a mistake, KNOW we’re making a mistake? We don’t! If we did, we probably wouldn’t make it! As C.S. Lewis tells us, we know about drunkenness when we’re sober, not when we’re drunk. We know about consciousness and sleep when we’re conscious, not when we’re asleep. So as we choose to focus our efforts on helping others, we will also come to see our own mistakes more clearly, and it will cause us to give grace toward others who make the same mistakes we do.
CHRISTMAS--(for those who are not religious, please bear with me for just a paragraph) for believers, this is the time when we celebrate the ultimate act of humility in the universe. The Creator, the omnipotent and omniscient God chose to humble Himself and come to earth as one of us, living the perfect life that we cannot live (yet strive for anyway), and die for us the death we deserve (because of our sins) to die, and then defeated death so that we can be reconciled to Him. There is no greater example of humility than that. In a similar (yet infinitely smaller) way, think of the impact of seeing a billion-dollar company’s CEO sweeping up after the Christmas party, or pitching in with grunt-work to help meet a pending deadline. When those in authority choose to humble themselves and help out those under their charge, it makes a powerful impact on us. As a Christian, I believe that God did this through Jesus, and Christmas is the celebration of that humility. That is source of my hope--that God became man, so that we might be reconciled to God. And in the meantime, my job is to serve others so that they might come to know Him and become the people they are meant to be, the best possible versions of themselves.
[N.B.: I , along with Chesterton, Lewis, Augustine, and every other honest believer will 100% admit that Christians throughout history have made mistakes (even HUGE ones), have caused problems, have treated people poorly. Any and all accusations you want to make about hypocrisy have truth in them. However, I would ask that you not judge Jesus by our faults; rather, I’d ask that you judge Jesus on His own merits. That is, if He is true, what could be a better source of hope than God choosing to sacrifice Himself for our sakes? If you want to learn more, please go pick up a copy of ‘Mere Christianity’ and give it a read.]
If we do these four things, there will be three positive results. First, as leaders, we’ll realize that not everything is about us. And that frees us from the burden of feeling solely responsible for the results of whoever we are leading. We are responsible, yes; but we are more responsible how we serve the people we are leading than anything else. Second, we will be more focused on doing good things without being concerned about who gets the credit. This results in better relationships, better outcomes, and a deeper impact on those we lead. And third, when we choose the good and thereby create a more positive environment, this will cause our audiences to follow us in that positivity. As we learn in the wonderful football/race relations movie ‘Remember the Titans,’ “Attitude reflects leadership.” If we want to lead in a positive, uplifting, encouraging environment, then we are responsible for helping create that environment. And we can best do that by staying humble, remaining hopeful, and choosing the good.
I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and may God bless you all!
Action Step: today, choose to believe the best of one person that you have previously been holding something against. See how it changes your perception of them, their actions, and their choices.