Staying the Course: Humility and Christian Leadership

Rarely is humility exalted as a fundamental element of true leadership.  Yet, despite what some popular leadership proponents may allege, an honest and discriminating look into contemporary business culture confirms what the Scripture proclaims: God is opposed to the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.  Christian leaders, then, must make every effort to cultivate sincere humility for their task of leadership within the church an in other organizations they might oversee.  Aiding in this endeavor is the goal of this article.

After a brief examination of Scripture’s teaching on the issue of pride and humility, I will consider a recent study from a business context that confirms the necessity of humility in leadership.  After this, I will provide a clear definition of humility and conclude by providing several strategies to aid Christian leaders in the development of personal humility.

The Perils of Pride and the Fruit of Humility: The Biblical Teaching
God is opposed to the proud.  This is the indisputable truth of Scripture.  Asserted directly through stern warning and illustrated vividly in God’s judgment of proud men and nations throughout the Old and New Testament, the biblical reality that pride only leads to destruction is inescapable.   Scripture tells us God devastates the proud and the haughty (II Samuel 22:28; II Chronicles 26:16; 32:25; Psalm 18:27; 101:5; Proverbs 15:25; Isaiah 2:11-17; 3:16; 5:15; 9:9; 13:11; 16:6; 25:11; 28:3; Jeremiah 48:29; Ezekiel 7:20;16:50; 28:2; 30:6, 18; 31:10; 33:28; Daniel 4:37; Zechariah 10:11; Luke 1:51; Acts 12:23).  He does not help the proud (Psalm 40:4; 94:2).   God says he will break people’s pride (Leviticus 26:19; II Chronicles 32:26; Psalm 59:12) and repay pride with punishment (Psalm 31:23).   The Bible tells us God hates pride (Proverbs 6:12; 21:4; Proverbs 8:13; Amos 6:8) and that pride comes before destruction (Proverbs 11:2; 16:18; 29:23; 18:12).  And pride is not only odious to God; it is deadly to man: it misleads and blinds the mind; it guards a man from receiving valuable instruction; it makes faith in Christ impossible (see John 5:44); and it hinders genuine growth in other important areas, as one theologian writes, “Till this disease [of pride] is cured, medicines are in vain applied to heal other diseases” (Undiscerned Spiritual Pride, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1, 399).

On the other hand, the same Scripture that speaks vigorously against the ugliness and danger of pride equally exalts the beauty and benefit of humility.  God is not only opposed to the proud; he gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).  Humility leads to salvation (Job 22:29; Psalm 18:27; 76:9; 149:4), favor (Job 5:11 Psalm 37:11; 138:5; Proverbs 3:36; 22:4; 29:23; Isaiah 11:4; 29:19; 57:19; 66:2; Matthew 5:5), and guidance from God (Psalm 25:9).  Sincere humility also cultivates a heart ready to receive wisdom (Proverbs 11:2) and grace (I Peter 5:5).  It is no wonder why humility usually precedes honor (Proverbs 15:33, 18:12) and why it is commanded so often in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:2; Philippians 2:3; Colossians 3:12; I Peter 5:5).

The Perils of Pride and the Fruit of Humility: A Contemporary Example
When it comes to leadership, much of the world rejects the idea that humility is essential for the task—yet it appears they do so at their own peril.  In his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, Jim Collins determined, based five years of rigorous collaborative research of eleven companies who made an enduring transition from “Good” to “Great,” that the success of these companies was due largely to the character of their CEOs.

These CEOs were not high-powered, charismatic, over-bearing, self-consumed leaders who required unquestioned authority and who reveled in their celebrity-like status.  On the contrary, in each of the eleven companies, the men who led their people and their institution to lasting success were consistently described by colleagues as “quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated” (Collins 2001, 27).  Far from being primarily concerned about personal affluence and reputation, these men took the helm of leadership with a desire to work first and foremost for the good of the company (Collins 2001, 21).

In contrast, the companies to which Collins and his team compared the eleven “Good to Great” companies—businesses who only enjoyed short-term success or encountered massive failure—were usually led by men who could not corral their ego.  Whether it was in overly ambitious acquisitions or in a failure to establish strong successors, these CEOs demonstrated they were more concerned for themselves—their money and their reputation as a great leader—than in the long-term achievement of the company.

Collins’ discovery of a consistent correspondence between humility in leadership and the stable success of an institution is further bolstered by recent developments in one of the “Good to Great” companies, Circuit City.  Despite a nearly thirty-eight year season marked by solid financial growth and steady success, Circuit City eventually came face-to-face with utter pecuniary ruin and filed bankruptcy on November 10, 2008.  In his latest work, How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In, Collins argues the demise of this once-great company (and others that have seen similar failure) can be characterized by a five-stage decline, beginning with what Collins calls a “Hubris Born of Success” (Collins 2009, 27).

Collins found that leaders of once-successful companies like Circuit City would often become enamored with their organization’s success to the point of assuming immunity from failure.  Success would then be seen as an entitlement rather than the fruit of hard-work, passion, discipline and sacrifice.  As companies like these enjoy marked accomplishment, their “people begin to believe that success will continue almost no matter what the organization decides to do, or not do” (Collins 2009, 43).  Collins calls this, “Success Entitlement.”  The Bible calls it pride.

The Necessity of Humility in Christian Leadership
Thus, in light of Scripture’s teaching on the deadening effects of pride and Collins’ example of the wreckage caused by executive arrogance, it should be clear that Christian leaders must make the cultivation of humility of first importance in their lives; there can be no true leadership without it.  J. Oswald Sanders reminds us, “Humility is the hallmark of the spiritual leader” (Spiritual Leadership, 61), while John Stott summarizes the comprehensive need for humility when he writes, “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend” (Humility: True Greatness, Mahaney, 29).  Dennis Bakke, CEO of a large charter school organization states the case plainly: “Humility is at the core of a leader’s heart” (Joy at Work, 135).  Regarding leadership in the Christian community, Jesus himself tells us, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43b-44).

Defining Our Terms: What Humility Is, and What It Is Not
If the nurture of genuine humility is indispensable in Christian leadership, it is important to understand what one means by the word “humility.”  It is equally important to understand what is not meant by this word.  This latter component of our definition—the negative component—is especially needed in a day when many in the church are trumpeting a call to humility, but whose definition of the term is woefully inadequate or altogether false. Some suggest pride is equivalent to certainty in doctrinal distinctions, whereas humility is the counterpart to doubt and uncertainty (see A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren,36-37).  In the swell of postmodernity, claims to absolute, objective truth are considered either illegitimate or the tools of domination (see The Gagging of God by D.A.Carson, 20)—those who make such claims are deemed the most arrogant.  G.K. Chesterton observed this trend in his own day.  As early as 1908, he wrote,

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place.  Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition.  Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be.  A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.  Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself.  The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason (Brothers, We are Not Professionals, 162).

As Chesterton intimates, true humility is not uncertainty in the head; rather, real humility is to be found in the heart—in one’s motivations for and attitudes toward leadership.  Nor is humility to be confused with passivity.  Some unfairly depict humble servant-leaders as wimpy pushovers who yield at any hint of opposition and defer tough decisions to others—pseudo-leaders who follow the whims of their people to avoid conflict rather than deliberately setting the course the good of the organization.

Certainly, there are those in positions leadership who fit this description (indeed, only their title grants them any identification as a leader), but the biblical expectation for godly leaders is that they be courageous, decisive, disciplined, wise, and possessed by a vision to see God work great things for the good of his people and the glory of his name (Sanders, 51-65).  In fact, as Collins found in his research, the leaders who established lasting success for their organization, while being recognized as “quiet, humble [and] modest,” were also characterized by fierce determination; an unwavering resolve toward life and “an incurable need to produce results” (Collins 2001, 30).  They were anything but passive.

So what is true humility?  If it is not doctrinal uncertainty or cowardly passivity, then what is it?  Simply, real humility is a turning away from self.  Dr. Stuart Scott defines this aspect of humility well when he writes, “[Humility is] the mindset of Christ (a servant’s mindset): a focus on God and others, a pursuit of the recognition of and exaltation of God, and a desire to glorify and please God in all things by all things he has given” (From Pride to Humility, 18).

Christian leaders are to be characterized by a consistent looking away from self, and a sincere and constant focus on God and others.  This understanding of genuine humility enables a leader to pursue certainty and conviction and lead with vigor and courage; at the same time, he is kept from succumbing to the temptation to build the church or Christian organization for his own personal benefit and exaltation.  Thus, as Dennis Bakke observes, “Humility underlies the impulse to make others better” (Joy at Work, 135, emphasis added).

But how are Christian leaders to maintain this attitude of humility?  How can Christian leaders avoid the destruction that inevitably follows pride and threatens to devastate their lives, their churches, and the organizations they seek to lead?  I would suggest seven strategies to help leaders establish and preserve Christ-exalting and fruit-bearing humility.

A Clear Understanding and Appreciation of the Gospel
Humility in Christian leadership begins with the gospel.  Only when a man understands his sin and the free grace of God at the cross can he make progress in the vital area of humility.  A true appreciation of the gospel immediately leads to a turning from self to a boasting in God (see I Corinthians 1:18-31).  Martyn Lloyd Jones aptly writes, “Nothing but the cross can give us a spirit of humility” (Mahaney, 66).  Why?  Because the cross shows a leader his desperate need for Christ and the mercy of God, while cultivating in his life a deep sense of thankfulness.  Genuine Christian humility can only start here.

The Discipline of Constantly Returning to Scripture
One of the symptoms of a leader’s hubris, Collins found, is a neglect of what he calls “the flywheel.”  When companies went from “Good” to “Great,” the transition was a result of constant attention to certain principles.  Although it took a disproportionate amount of work in the beginning to start the flywheel in motion, eventually the flywheel would gather momentum and “spin” on its own.  Success, however, would intoxicate some leaders and cause them to ignore the flywheel altogether.  This typically resulted in the company’s failure (Collins 2009, 32).

For Christian leaders and pastors, the temptation is to float away from Scripture as one tastes the fruit of success in his ministry.  This can lead to and strengthen existing pride as the leader begins to rely more on his own intuition, ideas, and wisdom, rather than consistently bringing his ministry under the guidance of the Bible.  Despite any outward success, this tendency will inevitably give way to a weakened ministry.  Pastor and author, Jay Adams, writes,

If [pastors] care about exercising powerful leadership, shepherds must be willing to support every plan, every program, and every administrative act by scriptural principles.  That is to say, they will ever study, question, examine and reexamine everything that they say or do as leaders in the light of the Word of God—they will never be satisfied with custom and tradition alone (Shepherding God’s Flock, 1975, 332).

The discipline of constantly returning to Scripture tethers a leader to God and His will and leaves little room for pride in one’s own wisdom to take root.  And, as Adams tells us, powerful leadership depends on such commitment to the Word of God.  To drift from the Scripture is to drift from God and the potential for effective leadership.

A Recognition of One’s Dependence Upon God
The source of a Christian leader’s strength, ability, wisdom, and power is God.  Jesus made this clear when he said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:6), and the apostle Paul felt keenly this truth when he said, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God (II Corinthians 3:5).  Paul realized even genuine progress in ministry and spiritual fruit is the gift of God (I Corinthians 3:6).  It is essential, therefore, in order for a Christian leader to remain humble, to recognize his utter dependence upon God.

Practically, this means a leader must acknowledge his weaknesses.  The apostle Paul not only recognized and accepted in his own weaknesses, he found joy in them because it was through his weakness he experienced God’s power: “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distress, for Christ’s sake.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).  How important is this aspect of leadership?  John MacArthur writes, “The leader who forgets his own weakness will inevitably fail.  Paul, by contrast, drew strength from remembering his own weaknesses, because those things made him more dependent on the power of God” (The Book on Leadership, 101).  Ignoring one’s weaknesses will not help an aspiring leader; it will only hurt him.

Knowing the Signs of Growing Pride
Another vital element in enabling one to stay the course of humble leadership is recognizing the symptoms of a growing problem with pride.  There are four key areas of which Christian leaders should be especially aware: over-commitment, a grasping for power, a spirit of expectation, and increasing independence.

1. Over-commitment. Over-commitment, while at first appearing highly spiritual, is actually the complete opposite. When Christian leaders over-commit, they not only dilute the quality of their service and work, they reveal an inability to manage their time, a fear of telling others, “no,” or the desire to compete with others who are doing more. It is often the case, when one finds over-commitment, he will find a leader who derives his identity and worth from his position of leadership. This causes him to over-value his reputation as a leader; thus he fears telling others “no” since this might cause those under his care to regard him as a weak or incapable leader. Over-commitment may also be the result of his desire to “keep up with Pastor Jones.” Whatever the case, over-commitment is a sure warning sign that pride has found a welcome place in the heart of a leader.

2. Grasping for Power. The ministry of leadership is a ministry of servanthood. Jesus tells us plainly that leadership within the church is not like that which is found in the world, where those in authority “lord” it over those under their care (Mark 10:42-45). As Alexander Strauch notes, “There is no place for dominating, lordly leaders in a family that is to be marked by mutual love (I Peter 1:22; 3:8; 4:8; 5:14), brotherhood, submission, and humility” (I Peter 2:13; 14, 18; 3:1; 5:5) (Biblical Eldership , 247). Pride in this area is seen in a leader’s hoarding the pulpit, in the micromanaging of other leaders, and in his anger when his authority is challenged. When these symptoms occur, pride is most likely the disease.

3. A Spirit of Expectation. Pride also manifests itself in a leader when he begins to expect a certain kind of gracious treatment from others in view of his position. This attitude, however, reveals this leader is thinking of himself too highly. Jesus told his disciples, “‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). It is the height of arrogance to suggest we should be treated better than our Lord. When leaders are living with an attitude of expectation, they are ensnared in the grip of pride.

4. Increasing Independence. Christian leaders who think too highly of themselves will also tend to drift away from fellowship and accountability, since they believe they are able to fight spiritual battles on their own. This attitude, however, betrays a woeful misunderstanding of one’s need for community in their perseverance as a Christian and as a leader (see Hebrews 3:12-15; 10:24-25). This dangerous trend can be countered through regular, authentic accountability with other trusted men in one’s church or organization.

Establishing Competent Successors
Finally, it is critically important for Christian leaders to train and establish competent successors.  In Collins’ study, he found a company’s enduring success was often dependent upon the successors put in place by the leader who brought about the initial success.  Collins writes, “In over three quarters of the comparison companies [companies that only enjoyed short-term growth or faced comprehensive ruin], we found executives who set their successors up for failure or chose weak successors, or both” (Collins 2001, 26).  Earlier, Collins writes, “the comparison leaders, concerned more with their own reputation for personal greatness, often failed to set the company up for success in the next generation” (Collins 2001, 26).  These leaders were unable to brook anyone leading the company to success other than themselves.  Unfortunately, this selfish and self-centered attitude typically preceded the company’s eventual failure.

In contrast, Christian leaders can cripple their pride and promote future success for their churches and organizations by the purposeful training of potential leaders.  Preparing competent, spiritual-gifted men helps a Christian leader hold lightly to their position and recognize they are only a small—and replaceable—component to their organization’s success.

Conclusion
The Scriptures make it clear that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).  Ironically, this truth is illustrated in a world that, for the most part, ardently challenges the idea that humility is essential for the task of leadership.  For Christian leaders, this means they must relentlessly and proactively pursue true humility for the glory of God and the good of their people.  As we have seen, their failure to do so will mean disaster for themselves, the marginalization of their organization, and the blighting of Christ’s holy name.

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