Sunday, March 18, 2007


The word "humble" and all its variations (humility; humbly) and synonyms (e.g., the "blessed are the meek") appear frequently in both the old and new testaments of the Bible, but what is humility?

The Bible says that "the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth." Num. 12:3 (NRSV). The man who spoke to God, confronted and defied the pharaoh of Egypt, and led an entire people into the wilderness towards an unseen promised land was "very humble"? What kind of humility is that?

When I think of humility, I often think of submissiveness, which suggests weakness, but humility in the Bible suggests a kind of quiet strength.

This is explicit in one of the commentaries to "the Lost Gospel Q" (Marcus Borg, Consulting Ed.), which translates the beatitude "blessed are the meek" as "fortunate are the gentle." A footnote explains that the original Greek word was "proates" which is more accurately translated as "gentle but strong" and "connotes strength that is gentle and tinged with of caring."

All those thoughts were jumbled up in my head when I read this passage by William O. Brown (1978): "Humility is a form of inner strength, a kind of dignity that makes it less necessary for a person to pretend." (Daily Readings from Quaker Writings Ancient & Modern, Linda Hill Renfer, Ed., Serenity Press)

Mr. Brown pretty much nailed it there. Humility is an expression of confidence, because a person who is truly confident does not need to brag or boast. And when you combine that kind of confidence with compassion for others, you get the "gentle strength" that Jesus was talking about.

And I have thought of at least two ways in which humility can bring power:
  • Humility gives us the power to see more clearly. All too often, our perceptions of the world and ourselves are clouded by our own egos. When we see ourselves as "right" and others as "wrong," it prevents us from seeing the truth in others and prevents us from learning new truths. And seeing more clearly gives us the power to act more clearly.

  • Humility also gives us power because people are more likely to listen to a voice of humility than a voice of pride or arrogance. The Tao Te Ching says that "All waters are drawn to the sea; it is its lowness that gives it power." People are actually more likely to trust the judgment of a person who expresses occasional uncertainty than the "know it all" who always claims to have all the answers.

Finally, and most importantly of all, humility reflects our right relationship with God. Our faith in God give us confidence and strength. But that confidence and strength is tempered by our understanding of our human weaknesses, by our inability to understand God's plans, and by our knowledge that our salvation comes from God's grace and not because we can earn it or deserve it.

Which helps my understand a little better my favorite passage from the old testament:

"And what does the Lord required of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

1 comment:

egonomics said...

Because of the work and research we do on humility and ego in the businessworld, I get "Googled" whenever someone writes on humility. That's how I found your post, and just wanted to say I appreciated your thoughts. For whatever it's worth, here's a quick summary of humility from what we write about in our book which comes out in September.

"Humility is the first principle of egonomics because of its unique ability to open minds. Until we’re ready to listen and learn, curiosity and veracity are never invited on stage. But as crucial as an open mind is, that may not even be the most essential characteristic of humility. Humility is a means to an end, and that end is the progress of the business. Discussions and debates that facilitate true progress require we temporarily suspend what we think is best for us to consider what’s in the best interests of the business. From a business perspective, humility doesn’t lose sight of “me,” but also doesn’t let our own needs interfere with open dialogue and intense debate. With that intention of progress, we discovered a characteristic of humility we came to call “constructive discontent.”

Without losing confidence in who we are or lessening the importance of what we’ve achieved, humility has the unique ability to create a craving to reach the next level of performance. Without an open mind, no questions are asked about what that next level might be. And even when asked—without humility—only selective replies are heard. Humility swallows excessive pride and channels our ambition into the business success of “we” rather than a selfish, short-lived agenda of only “me.” Humility doesn’t replace “me” with “we,” but places our focus in the proper sequence, for the right reasons, and at the right time.

In one survey, Fast Company asked 1,665 respondents to rate leaders in various types of organizations on their ability to lead. Of the abilities they saw in their leaders, characteristics like being passionate about work or ruthless for success rated high. Unselfishness rated dead last. In one of our surveys, nearly eight out of ten people wish their organizations were more humble. Interestingly, when we’re teaching those same people and we begin the discussion of becoming more humble, there is hesitancy until we explore what humility really means. As a trait, humility is the point of equilibrium between too much ego and not enough. Humility has a reputation of being the polar opposite of excessive ego. In fact, the exact opposite of excessive ego is no confidence at all. Humility provides the crucial balance between the two extremes. To borrow a phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous, humility doesn’t require we think less of ourselves, but that we think of ourselves less often. Humility is not the equivalent of being weak, ignored, indifferent, boring, or a pushover. If it is to be a point of equilibrium, humility must include confidence, ambition, and willpower.

Without a clear understanding of what humility is, it can be seen as a trait best left to special causes and religious leaders, but not businesspeople. If humility seems to be an out-dated concept in a fiercely competitive world, it’s because humility is misunderstood, understudied, and underused—and, consequently, underestimated. As an indispensable trait of great leadership, humility must make its way past the pulpit of Sunday sermons and into cubicles and boardrooms. Humility should be our first reflex, not our regret once the moment has past."

Anyway, thanks again and best wishes in your important work.