Faith and Enterprise Podcast

Episode: The Power of Humility

Partial Transcript

Recorded 06/19/17 by Rob Tribken



Some people think of humility as weakness. But if we understand it clearly, I think there can great power in genuine humility. And that’s our topic for today.

(Music and VOA)

Welcome. . .

Today we will be talking about the power of humility. A couple of months ago I attended my church men’s retreat and the retreat leader spoke very effectively about humility and its importance. What he said really intrigued me and led me to do some more research into the subject.

As you probably know, humility is usually discussed as a virtue that should be cultivated for its own sake, whether it provides us with practical benefits or not. And I agree.

But humility can also make an important contribution to our spiritual and psychological flourishing and can have very important benefits for our work life as well.

Humility is presented as an important virtue in the New Testament. Jesus advocated humility, and the Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus humbling himself. In his letter to the Romans, Paul also asks that his readers “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”

More recently, quite a few business and management researchers have concluded that the effectiveness of leaders is closely associated with their humility. While a narcissistic or a prideful leader can sometimes project a charismatic image and thereby attract followers, such leaders are much less likely to be effective over time than are leaders with more humility.

And I think here we need to be clear about what we mean by humility. The word humility has been used in a number of different ways. But for our purposes it’s important to note that humility is not the same thing as self abasement or self denigration. Nor is it the same as intentionally projecting an image of modesty.

I think it is helpful to think of humility as having to do with a reduced focus on one’s own self. The person with humility is less concerned with maintaining a high degree of self-importance, or high social status, and is therefore more open to information and insights from others, whether it supports his or her own viewpoint or not.That doesn’t mean that we have a necessarily low view of ourselves; it means rather that we are relatively unconcerned with our self-image.

George Mason University professor and psychologist June Tangney has identified six interrelated elements of humility that I think bear this out. I’m not going to read the whole list, but let me just say that it involves things like a willingness to acknowledge one’s limitations and mistakes; an openness to advice, new ideas and contradictory information; a relatively low self focus; and a much greater appreciation for other people and what other people contribute to the world.

I think you can see the common thread in these various elements. Humility allows one to be open to people and to the world, open to God’s creation you might say; the defense of one’s ego needs and social status does not get in the way of being open to information and relationships.

We sometimes associate humility with modesty, but for our purposes here modesty is more of a social characteristic; people who are said to be modest present themselves, sincerely or otherwise, as being lower in status or ability than other people.

It is true that some elements within the Christian tradition have advocated forms of self abasement in the name of humility. Some mystics have used this as a way of letting go of their ego and personal identity, maybe in order to intensify the mystical experience. Others have tried to use self abasement as a form of asceticism in pursuit of personal virtue. That is not what we’re talking about here.

I think the value of humility as I defined it earlier is quite obvious.

If we look at it through a spiritual or religious lens, we can see that if we can just let go of our self concern we can be more open to reality. We will be more likely to hear and respond to the concerns of others. We will be more aware of our own deep yearning for connection and purpose and growth. And we will probably be more open to spiritual experience.

That’s through a religious or spiritual lens.

If we look at humility through a business or organizational lens, we can see that if we are more open to information that has not been filtered through our own ego needs, we are more likely see things as they really are and to act with wisdom. We are also more likely to appreciate other people, and the contribution they make; this is bound to lead to stronger relationships, greater collaboration, and more effective leadership.

Compare this to the prideful or narcissistic person who is so caught up in maintaining a high degree of self importance and social status that he or she is unable to take in information that might not support their self evaluation. Their pride might provide some motivation and some confidence, both of which can be useful in some circumstances. But a reluctance to accept some types of ego threatening information can also close the narcissist off from the ideas of others and make it much more difficult to form effective working relationships. In a business context where innovation and the ability to read the environment accurately can be critical to our survival, narcissism and excessive pride can be highly dysfunctional, no matter how much so called “charisma” is projected by the person involved.

No matter which lens we apply, the spiritual or the business, it should be clear that by clearing away excessive self concern, humility can help us to engage life more deeply, help us to be more fully alive, psychologically and spiritually. And this is bound to be enormously valuable in our daily life, and for the people with whom we come in contact.

After we come to the end of this episode, which will be in a minute or two, I invite you to take some time and think about those areas and situations where your pride might be getting in the way of being open to new information and to building strong, collaborative relationships. Where might you work at developing more humility? I think you will find this useful.