Humilitas | Notes

Posted on February 26, 2012


John Dickson. Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership. Zondervan, 2011. (196 pages)

INTRODUCTION | Humility and How I Achieved It

CHAPTER 1 | Thesis: What Is Humility and Why Does It Matter?

Learning history (and especially learning from it) is the ultimate exercise in democracy. By it you give a voice not just to the “blip” we call the twenty-first-century West but to the whole human family, ancient and modern. You allow the dead to cast a vote in the discussions and decisions of the present. (18)

…real wisdom for life and leadership is found not just int he latest issue of the Harvard Business Review (as helpful as it is) but in opening yourself up to centuries of human thinking on these and other topics. The reader of history is the ultimate pollster, canvassing the opinion of the entire human family. (18)

The Thesis. My thesis is simple: The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility. True greatness, in other words, frequently goes hand in hand witha  virtue that, on the face of it, might be thought to curb achievement and mute influence. In fact, I believe it does the opposite. (19)

What Is Humility? Humility does not mean humiliation, even though both words are offspring of a single Latin parent (humilitas). Nor does it mean being a doormat for others, having low self-esteem or curbing your strengths and achievements. (22)

Having strong opinions is no hindrance to humility either. One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance. (22-23)

I want to argue that the solution to ideological discord is not “tolerance” in the postmodern form we frequently find it, the bland affirmation of all viewpoints as equally true and valid but an ability to profoundly disagree with others and deeply honour them at the same time. (23)

Three old civilizations have been mixed together to form the culture of which we are heirs — the Hebrew, the Greek and the Roman, a religious, an artistic and an organizing, administrative or scientific civilization. These three streams of old experience have never really fused. – John Macmurray

In all three languages the word used to describe humility means “low”, as in low to the ground: the Hebrew anawa, the Greek tapeinos, and the already-familiar Latin humilitas. Used negatively, these terms mean to be put low, that is, ” to be humiliated”. Positively, they mean to lower yourself or “to be humble”. (24)

Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others. (24)

First, humility presupposes your dignity. …True humility assumes the dignity or strength of the one possessing the virtue, which is why it should not be confused with having low self-esteem or being a doormat for others. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is impossible to be humble in the real sense without a healthy sense of your own worth and abilities. (24-25)

Wise leaders hold nobility with humility. Overbearing ego and debilitating self-abasement are generally avoided in all wisdom traditions. Many traditions call for balance. I would suggest a further step, also found in the ancient wisdom writings: that you look beyond balance, that you embrace the paradox of strength in weakness to find your true weight as a leader. – Mark Strom

Second, humility is willing. It is a choice. Otherwise, it is humiliation. | Finally, humility is social. it is not a private act of self-deprecation — banishing proud thoughts, refusing to talk about your achievements and so on. I would call this simple “modesty”. (25)

…in this book I am suggesting that humility, rightly understood, has often marked the most influential and inspiring people in history, whether religious figures like Buddha and Jesus, social activists like William Wilberforce, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, or some of the “most remarkable CEO’s of the century” detailed in Jim Collins’s research: Darwin E. Smith of Kimberly-Clark, Colman Mockler of Gillette and Ken Iverson of the steel giant Nucor. (28)

CHAPTER 2 | Leadership: What It Is and How Humility Fits In

What Is Leadership? I doubt it is controversial to describe leadership as the art of inspiring others in a team to contribute their best toward a goal. (33)

Tools of Leadership. …all organizations, even hugely hierarchical ones like the military, are still communities of people in relationship. There is no avoiding the “human” in leadership. (41)

Aristotle…said that all of us tend to believe the views of people we already trust. (41)

The Heart of Leadership. Leadership is not about popularity. It is about gaining people’s trust and moving them forward. (43) …Again, this is because leadership is fundamentally relational: effective communication and building trust are key aspects of all relationships, whether in marriages, families, political movements or multinational corporations. (43)

Persons in power should be very careful how they deal with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasure, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy, because his body which you can always conquer gives you so little purchase upon his soul – Hibbert Journal, 1918

…massive influence can be exerted with minimal structural authority as long as maximal persuasion and life example exist. (45)

Let me offer a syllogism that the rest of the book will, I trust, demonstrate:

  1. Persuasion and example are keys to effective leadership.
  2. Humility enhances persuasiveness, partly because it is a compelling character trait in leaders.
  3. Therefore, humility is important for leadership.

CHAPTER 3 | Common Sense: The Logic of Humility

Humility is common sense. (51)

Despite the collective brilliance represented by my readers, what we don’t know and can’t do far exceeds what we do know and can do. (51)

Expertise in one area counts for little in another. …what you might call competency extrapolation. (52)

Knowing a lot in fact demonstrates how much I don’t know. Expertise could legitimately be described as uncovering the depths of my ignorance. It is a principle that leaders should ponder regularly. (54)

Humbly acknowledging limitations and refusing to engage in competency extrapolation are not signs of weakness. They demonstrate realism and are therefore strengths. The opposite, in fact, is a serious weakness and a complete unreality. (56)

It is a fact of our nature, it seems, that most of us have a grossly exaggerated sense of our own abilities. | Whatever our skills and expertise, what we don’t know and can’t do far exceeds what we do know and can do. Despite the power of self-deception — and, indeed, as its antidote — a good dose of humility is common sense. (59)

The Universe. …the mysterious harmony of the laws of nature should lead thinking people — whether believers or otherwise — to an attitude not far off humility. (61)

I am simply pointing out, as an aside, that atheism lacks the theoretical framework for the kind of humility described in this book. Humility involves both a sense of finitude and a sense of inherent dignity. (66)

CHAPTER 4 | AESTHETICS: How the Humble Are Beautiful

In business, sport, the military or anywhere you care to mention, we are more attracted to the great who are humble than to the great who know it and want everyone else to know it as well. (69)

Humility is beautiful. (72)

Only a person who feels his preference to be a matter of course, not something out of the ordinary, and who has no thought of heroism but only of a duty undertaken with sober enthusiasm, is capable of becoming the sort of spiritual pioneer the world needs. There are not heroes of action — only heroes of renunciation and suffering. Of these there are plenty. But few of them are known, and even they not to the crowd, bgut to the few…Those who are given the chance to embark on a life of independent action must accept their good fortune in a spirit of humility. They must often think of those who, though equally willing and capable, were not in a position to do the same. – Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought

The expression “standing on the shoulders of Giants” was not original to Newton, but its use by one of the world’s greatest intellects is a salient reminder. On another occasion he described himself as “a boy playing on the seashore”, searching for interesting shells and pebbles “while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” (79)

Humility makes the great even greater. (79)

Humility is not an ornament to be worn; it is an ideal that will transform. (82)

CHAPTER 5 | Philotimia: Why the Ancient World Didn’t Like Humility

Honour and Shame. One of the most difficult things for ancient history students to get their heads around when first exploring the subject is the place Mediterranean societies gave to honour and shame. Honour was universally regarded as the ultimate asset for human beings, and shame the ultimate deficit — so much so that academics frequently refer to Egyptian, Greek and Roman societies simply as “honour-shame cultures”. (86)

The range of moral advice found in the Delphic Canon is impressive:

  • “Control yourself.”
  • “Help your friends.”
  • “Practise prudence.”
  • “Return a favor.”
  • “Nothing to excess.”
  • “Act on knowledge.”
  • “Honour good people.”
  • “Don’t curse your sons.”
  • “Rule your wife.”
  • “Mete out justice.”
  • “Despise no one.”
  • “Worship divinity.”
  • “Don’t mock the dead.”
  • “Don’t let your reputation go.”
  • “Respect the elder.”
  • “Respect yourself.”
  • “Die for your country.”
  • “Don’t trust fortune.”

In these paragraphs, as in the res Gestae, we catch a glimpse of one of the profound cultural differences between ancient Mediterranean society and the modern Western world. And the difference came about not through a slow evolution of ethical reflection but through a kind of humility revolution. (95)

CHAPTER 6 | Cruciform: How a Jew from Nazareth Refined Greatness

…the modern Western fondness for humility almost certainly derives from the peculiar impact on Europe of the Judeo-Christian worldview. (99)

It is just a simple fact of the academy in state universities all over the world that Jesus remains a figure of historical interest. (102)

We are simply tracking where the modern notion of humility as a positive ethical virtue came from. And there is little doubt that the Jew Jesus had something to do with it. (104)

A Cruciform Culture. Interestingly, what established humility as a virtue in Western culture was not Jesus’ persona exactly, or even his teaching, but rather his execution — or, more correctly, his followers’ attempt to come to grips with his execution. (105)

Honour was proof of merit, shame the proof of worthlessness. But what does this say about the crucified Jesus? That was the question confronting the early Christians. Logically, they had just two opinions. Either Jesus was not as great as they had first thought, his crucifixion being evidence of his insignificance, or the notion of “greatness” itself had to be redefined to fit with the fact of his seemingly shameful end. (106)

Christians took the other option. For them the crucifixion was not evidence of Jesus’ humiliation (humilitas) but proof that greatness can express itself in humility (humilitas), the noble choice to lower yourself for the sake of others. (107)

What we read in the above text (Philippians 2) is nothing less than a humility revolution. Honour and shame are turned on their heads. The highly honoured Jesus lowered himself to a shameful cross and, yet, in so doing became not an object of scorn but one of praise and emulation. …Honour has been redefined, greatness recast. If the greatest man we have ever known chose to forgo his status for the good of others, reasoned the early Christians, greatness must consist in humble service. The shameful place is now a place of honour, the low point is the high point. (109)

A Christian Monopoly on Humility? My point is not that Christians alone can be humble; rather, as a plain historical statement, humility came to be valued in Western culture as a consequence of Christianity’s dismantling of the all-pervasive honour-shame paradigm of the ancient world. (111-112)

Put another way, while we certainly don’t need to follow Christ to appreciate humility or to be humble, it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue were it not for the historical impact of his crucifixion on art, literature, ethics, law and philosophy. Our culture remains cruciform long after it stopped being Christian. (112)

CHAPTER 7 | Growth: Why Humility Generates Abilities

…virtue is not an ethereal preparation for “otherworldly” existence; it is practical engagement in the here-and-now and has untold social implications and benefits for those who walk in its path. (116)

Arrogant managers can overevaluate their current performance and competitive position, listen poorly, and learn slowly. – J. P. Kotter

…the greatness of science consists not solely in moments of genius, but in the recognition that most apparent moments of genius are not. – Professor Raymond Tallis

It required “not only the conquest of the material world, but the conquest of human nature. …not just knowledge of nature but a mature understanding of the limitations of our knowledge.” – Tallis

Chesterton argued that human pride is in fact the engine of mediocrity.

It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything. – G. K. Chesterton

I am not talking about allowing others to walk all over you. That would be humiliation. Instead, I mean opening yourself up to the vulnerability of being wrong, receiving correction and asking others how they think you could do better. In this sense the low place is the high place. It is where you develop. (123)

Humility generates learning and growth. (125)

Humility and Self-Esteem. Often those who are boastful, protective and unwilling to listen are actually the most insecure. It is a compensation mechanism, a way of hiding true feelings of inadequacy. …The logic is simple: if you have a robust view of yourself, you don’t need others to affirm it, at least not as often. (125)

I’m no psychologist but I imagine that humility not only signals security; it probably fosters it too. I am increasingly convinced that a healthy self-worth is rooted far more in service than achievement, far more in giving than taking. For one thing, achievement is such a fragile basis for self-esteem. (127)

Knowing that we are loved and valued by those we love and value is the predictor of a healthy sense of self-worth. …Relationships are where security is really found. And since humility — holding your power for the good of others — can only enhance our relationships, I feel confident saying that humility not only signals security, it fosters it as well. (127-128)

…mistakes of execution are rarely as damaging to an organization, whether corporate, ecclesiastical or academic, as a refusal to concede mistakes, apologize to those affected and redress the issue with generosity and haste. (130)

Humility truly is the mother of all virtues. It makes us a vessel, a vehicle, an agent instead of “the source” or the principal. It unleashes all other learning, all growth and process. With the humility that comes from being principle-centered, we’re empowered to learn from the past, have hope for the future, and act with confidence in the present. – Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

CHAPTER 8 | Persuasion: How Character Determines Influence

…it is a simple observational reality that the humble are frequently more persuasive and inspiring than the arrogant. (135)

When people trust us, they tend to believe what we say, and few are considered more trustworthy than those who choose to use their power for the good of others above themselves. (147)

CHAPTER 9 | Inspiration: How Humility Lifts Those Around Us

Employees start to like what they see of leadership and begin to believe that they too could one day move toward greater responsibility within the organization. This aspirational effect is a key to humility’s power to inspire. (155)

The fourth and final reason I can think of for humility’s inspirational effect on an organization is that it fosters loyalty toward the leader. (155)

When leadership is about us, the organization reverts to mere operational expertise because people stop believing in the goal. (156)

CHAPTER 10 | Harmony: Why Humility Is Better Than “Tolerance”

The Danger of Conviction. With due respect to the careful thought that went into the International Year for Tolerance, I think we can do better than to ask people of strong conviction — or even dogma — to relax their claims to knowledge and truth. (165)

Conviction and Humility. If humility is the noble choice to hold your power for the good of others before yourself, its relevance in the moral and religious sphere is revolutionary. Humility applied to convictions does not mean believing things any less; it means treating those who hold contrary beliefs with respect and friendship. | This is an important distinction. Some philosophers argue that the path to harmony is an epistemic humility, that is, only tentatively to claim any knowledge. (167)

When I talk about humility applied to conviction, I do not mean believing things less. I am advocating that we hold our convictions firmly but do so with a soft heart toward those who hold contrary convictions. (168)

There is a failure of ethical imagination in our culture that probably makes my argument sound quaint and idealistic. We have forgotten how to flex two mental muscles at the same time: the muscle of moral conviction and the muscle of compassion to all regardless of their morality. (169)

An open mind is like an open mouth: its purpose is to bite on something nourishing. Otherwise, it becomes like a sewer, accepting everything, rejecting nothing. – G.K. Chesterton

CHAPTER 11 | Steps: How It’s Possible to Become (More) Humble

First, we are shaped by what we love. (174)

Reflect on the lives of the humble. (175) If we are shaped by what we love, it is equally true that we avoid what we despise. (176)

Third, conduct thought experiments to enhance humility. (177)

Fourth, act humbly. (178)

…invite criticism. (180)

Finally, forget about being humble. (182)