Just a year ago, I was flabbergasted when I discovered that quite a great number of students in our introductory leadership class, Learning and Leading, couldn’t explain the difference between humility and humiliation. This presented quite a difficulty since we spend an entire week in our freshman leadership class on the role of humility in leadership. In fact, when I asked them what they thought about the article they read which referenced the role of humility in leadership, a number of them thought the idea was a terrible one.
In twenty-three sections of this particular class, almost every facilitator had a similar experience. Many of these students had seen leaders who chose to use intimidation or humiliation with their followers and our students couldn’t distinguish this from the concept of having humility as a leader. Others had watched as once respected leaders had plummeted from public approval through various scandals and wanted no part of leadership accompanied by humiliation.
So, when every group in my Organizational Leadership class selected humility among the top qualities of a leader, I was thrilled. (Only 7% of Barna survey respondents selected humility.)
As I discussed in last week’s blog, a couple of the characteristics of good leaders selected by my students were unexpected. Though the first gave me plenty of food for thought, this second difference was particularly surprising in light of my past interactions with students about humility and leadership. Though I’m sure I maintained an outward posture of serious academic fervor in front of my class, inside I was throwing a party.
I think any faculty member in Christian higher education wants to celebrate when they see their students integrate faith with their learning. Whether they realized it or not, these students were drawing directly from the teachings of Scripture in considering what makes a good leader. When we consider the character of Jesus Christ, humility is among the first qualities to come to mind. Consider the words of Philippians 2:5-7
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant…”
If we, as leaders, are leading only in the context of being followers of Christ, then it would be exceptionally difficult to find a place for self-serving leadership.
And as often seems to be the case, research supports the words of scripture. Jim Collins’ research in Good to Great indicates that the best leaders are in fact humble. He talks about a “curious combination” of personal humility combined with a great deal of drive to see the organization succeed.
Of course, being humble doesn’t automatically make you a good leader, but in a world where so many leaders we see are arrogant, domineering, or self-serving, I’m so impressed that our students can envision a world where the most valued leaders look out for the good of others and give credit to those around them.