July 31, 2020

​Humility in Leadership

Are leaders there to lead, or to serve?

Pardon K. Mwansa

Humility is defined as having or showing a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance. It means that a person may have accomplished a lot, or have a lot, but doesn’t feel it necessary to advertise or brag about it.

Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, was walking in an exclusive section of town when a wealthy White woman stopped him. Not knowing Mr. Washington by sight, the woman asked if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping wood for her. Because he had no pressing business at the moment, Washington smiled, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to do the humble chore. He then carried the wood into the house and stacked it by the fireplace. A little girl recognized him and later revealed his identity.

The next morning the embarrassed woman went to see Washington in his office at the institute and apologized profusely. “It’s perfectly all right, madam,” he replied. “Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it’s always a delight to do something for a friend.”

We Know It When We See It

Humility is when we can, but choose not to; when we are, yet do not advertise it; when we can be listed, but are not. It is when we are educated, rich, in a high position in society—when everyone wants our signature—yet we don’t make a big thing out of our success.

Jesus warned people to watch out for the church leaders of His time. “They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at the banquets” (Mark 12:38, 39).

Yet humility was so important that Jesus gave this counsel: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. . . . But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:8-11).

Humility is one of the qualities evident in those God called to be leaders. When God called Moses, Moses’ feeling about himself was that of inadequacy (Ex. 3:11). After a demonstration of some miracles aimed at convincing Moses that God would enable him to succeed, Moses simply said, “I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (Ex. 4:10). God made one more attempt by assuring Moses that since God made man’s mouth, He would be able to help him. To this Moses responded, “Please send someone else” (verse 13). Scripture later described Moses as “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

When Israel asked for a king, God consented to their request and chose Saul. When God sent Samuel to anoint a Saul as king, Saul’s response was “But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why do you say such a thing to me?” (1 Sam. 9:21). On the day of his installation as leader, he wouldn’t even appear in public; he couldn’t be found. The Lord said, “Yes, he has hidden himself among the supplies” (1 Sam. 10:22). The same feelings of inadequacy when called to leadership are what we find in Solomon and Jeremiah. They both said essentially, “I am only a child” (see 1 Kings 3:7; Jer. 1:6).

Lack of humility in leadership has caused the downfall of many. Kings Saul and Uzziah are examples (1 Sam. 15:17; 2 Chron. 26:10-15). No wonder the Bible says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Prov. 11:2).

Humble, Like Jesus

The apostle Paul urged the believers in Philippi to have the “same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). He then explains: “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, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (verses 6-8).

Here are three lessons from this passage:

First, it is not human or natural to consider others better than ourselves. During church elections many candidates think of themselves as superior or more qualified than others.

Second, humble leaders consider not only their own interests, but also the interests of others.

Third, if Jesus, who was in nature God, could stoop down, then humble leaders should dedicate themselves to emulating Jesus.

Being humble, though, does not mean being weak, soft, or quiet. Jesus was not weak (see John 2:13-16; Luke 13:32, 33).

The Undergirding Principle

True humility is undergirded by the realization that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). This is the attitude Nehemiah had when he said, “The God of heaven will give us success” (Neh. 2:20).

It was the same attitude that Daniel and Joseph had when they responded to kings with these words: “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (Dan. 2:27, 28). “I cannot do it, . . . but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires” (Gen. 41:16). Both leaders chose to speak of their wisdom as derived from God and not from self.

Those credited with great leadership in the Bible have very little to praise about themselves. While addressing God, Abraham said of himself, “I am nothing but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). Paul spoke about himself as “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9), as “less than the least of all the Lord’s people” (Eph. 3:8). David, when he could have killed Saul, spared Saul’s life, referring to himself as a “dead dog,” a “flea” (1 Sam. 24:14).

Humility in Practice

Humble leaders don’t lose any of their status or influence by being the friends of those who report to them. Presidents do not cease being such because they mingle with people on other rungs of society’s ladders, or at different levels on the institution’s totem pole. A chief administrator is still that if they are found helping with duties sometimes called menial. No college president steps down in status by riding in a bus with students or eating in the student cafeteria. Leaders do not have to keep people waiting outside their offices unnecessarily just to make themselves feel more important.

Great leaders are humble, remain humble, and finish humble.

Pardon K. Mwansa, a former General Conference vice president, is vice chancellor of Rusangu University in Monze, Zambia.