I’ve known a lot of gifted leaders. Who doesn’t love the leader who can pry open your mind with an “aha” moment? Tumble you into a vision you’d never even conceived?
But we’ve all known leaders powerfully gifted, who were powerful … well, jerks. So there’s a leadership quality that for me, trumps giftedness every time: humility.
I see that God, too, straight-up sets Himself against the arrogant (James 4:6) and hangs out with the humble, the low (Isaiah 57:15). And in His birth, Jesus models a King inaugurated right next to animal poop. He says we should follow Him into scutwork, like washing dirty bodies (John 13:1-7).
The humble leader is also the most authentic and, therefore, trustworthy. They’re teachable and, therefore, good listeners. They’re servants of every person and, therefore, good at loving.
It’s contrary to the narrative leaders typically receive, right? Fellow FamilyLife writer Tracy Lane wrote of the inauguration of the first female vice president:
I’ve seen it all over my feeds: “Now my daughter knows she can be whatever she wants to be.” But I want my daughters to know there’s more than that. To dream bigger than whatever they want to be!
There’s who their Creator created them to be. And that’s a dream laced with surrender. That’s something different than “whatever they want to be.”
Maybe God has a quiet midnight bedroom pouring their hearts into a newborn… or has a delicate ICU bedside in their future. Maybe it is the Oval Office someday. Or even taking the gospel to an unreached people far away.
See, God doesn’t command against ambition, but selfish ambition. Christian leadership requires washing—not softening—our ambition, scrubbing self-importance from it. Author Michael Hyatt points out Ezra stood on a “high wooden platform” (Nehemiah 8:4) to share God’s words with His people. If he’d had it built too short out of false humility, few would have heard what God commanded him to share.
The problem isn’t with the glory, but where it’s headed.
When leadership is about filling my own holes
In John 3:30 (NIV)–“He must become greater, I must become less”—I used to hear I should be invisible so as not to steal God’s honor. But John the Baptist, who said those words, certainly was no wallflower. He just directed his following to the right place.
But as leaders, it’s so easy for our cravings to smack on some religious lipstick, right? Maybe our hunger for approval makes us always serving, always available, always busy. Or our thirst for popularity makes us charismatic. Maybe our desire for power or significance causes us to jostle for position.
Our insecurity, our soul-holes—like a barber pole—have a revolving relationship with pride. Both unworthiness and overweening ego find their value in what we do, what others think, or what we have (reputation, control, security, popularity, power). Neither chooses satisfied worthiness via our image of God and proclaimed by Jesus’ sacrifice.
To Jeremiah, Gideon, Moses, Esther–leaders questioning their abilities–God emphasized His purposes and choosing, His strength, help, and capability amid crushing weakness.
In The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Tim Keller explains the Greek word physióō—translated in 1 Corinthians 4:6 “that none of you may be puffed up”—refers to a distended organ. It’s an uncomfortably swelled sense of self.
Think of inflating a balloon. When unfilled, un-“abiding” with the gravity of God’s love (John 15:1-7)—we inflate ourselves with all the ways we try to be worthy. Ego deflates to insecurity in their absence.
But we don’t have to try to pump ourselves up anymore. And that’s where we can camp out when, through the generosity of God, we shine. We were unworthy–and He changed all that (see Galatians 2:20).
Do I have an issue with pride?
Pride’s a stealthy adversary. C.S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, it’s the “one vice of which no man in the world is free … If you think you are not conceited, you are very conceited indeed.”
So, spoiler: You, like the rest of us, have a pride issue.
Perhaps it’s easier to ferret out the ways pride manifests for us. Not that appearing more humble helps pride one iota. But we might know where, in our hearts, to start.
How could pride show up in us as leaders?
Perhaps from a need to be needed, significant, or in control, we rely on ourselves rather than others. We refuse others serving us; we must be the giver. Or we may allow others control of our schedule, desiring approval or popularity.
God alone should be our voice of authority in service—not the leash of others’ whims or praise.
2. Self-aggrandizement or superiority.
We parade to ourselves, God, or others our spiritual resume, fame, influence, achievements, activities, generosity. We may fantasize about our present or future greatness, our contribution to God’s kingdom, rather than coming to God as “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3).
Perhaps we micromanage, overprotect, or defend territory. We don’t empower others toward growth, courage, perseverance, or leadership by “entrust[ing] to reliable people” (2 Timothy 2:2, NIV). We may fail to utilize all the parts of Christ’s Body to most effectively help His kingdom come. We may struggle with fear, trusting the power in our hands rather than God’s.
4. Power or influence.
We might use our power to accomplish what feel like vital agendas rather than open-handedly seeking God’s kingdom and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven. We might leverage Jesus to construct our personal platform, significance, and influence.
5. Lack of teachability or flexibility. Defensiveness and/or blame-shifting.
But “reprove a wise man, and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8); “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19). The humble leader retains consciousness of the log in their own eye (Matthew 7:5) and regularly says “I’m sorry/I forgive you,” racing others to the cross.
6. Lacking compassion and mercy; easily angered.
As part of His identity, God repeatedly characterizes Himself as “slow to anger.” Humility increases the understanding of our weakness and sin, our need, and God’s constant compassion toward us.
Humility in leadership readily deploys the Holy Spirit’s outflow of patience, unflustered when undervalued or underappreciated. (Check out Proverbs 14:29, 19:11; Ecclesiastes 7:9, and Colossians 3:13.)
7. Lack of/or resistance to working with the powerless, or in secret, or work unglamorous and small.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven … But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:1,3); “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
8. Unwillingness to be served, stubbornly independent.
Like Peter, we resist anyone washing our feet (John 13:8). Yet, 1 Corinthians 12:21 says no part of Christ’s Body can say to another, “I don’t need you.”
Though God tells us to be perfect as He is perfect, pride subtly shifts a God-focused quest for holiness to lofty, self-promoting ideas of ourselves, and a desire to shuck weakness, shame, or being wrong.
10. Lack of authenticity or vulnerability; lack of ready confession. Desire to conceal or hide.
We may want to preserve appearances or avoid consequences. We embellish to make ourselves or our homes or family or contributions look better. Or we may control others by spinning the narrative.
And we may be guilty of cleaning up the outside instead of cleaning up the inside–which Jesus loathed (Matthew 23:25). Rather than seeing the problem as within us, we see the problem in the outside world. But the biblical David models healthy vulnerability and open personal repentance in 2 Samuel 12 and Psalm 51.
11. Judgmental or critical.
Nancy Lee Wolgemuth emphasizes how humility changes our posture to loving discernment and genuine care: “Proud people have a critical, fault-finding spirit; they look at everyone else’s faults with a microscope but their own with a telescope. Broken people are compassionate; they can forgive much because they know how much they have been forgiven.”
12. False modesty; self-deprecation.
God isn’t just the Master of our weakness, but our strength: “You have … clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent” (Psalm 30:11). We can accept thoughtful praise or accurate descriptions of what we’ve done well, in godward gratitude: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
13. Resting in gifts/abilities; pointing to self as hero or celebrity. Lack of intimate time with God.
Paul David Tripp explains in Dangerous Calling,“Because of this, I don’t grieve enough, I don’t pray enough, I don’t prepare enough, I don’t confess enough, and I don’t listen to others enough … I don’t minister out of my own sense of need for Christ’s grace, and I don’t seek out the help of others.”
14. Comparison to others.
We naturally tend to compare ourselves to those we perceive as lower than us. Lewis again: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.”
15. Eagerness to speak more than listen.
Lack of listening communicates more self-love and love of our contributions than love for the person across from us. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2); “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
16. Lack of gratitude.
We may feel entitled to what we “deserve” or have earned for ourselves, rather than the reality of deserving eternal punishment, aside from God’s kindness.
Humility in leadership: what it is
But after that grim picture—what’s the solution look like?
Humility in leadership sees ourselves just as God sees us. No greater. No less. It’s a beautiful lack of self-consciousness.
We look at ourselves with “sober judgment” (Romans 12:3), placing ourselves as leaders in the right order of things: beneath God’s authority and valuing others’ needs above ours (Romans 1:21-25, Philippians 2:3-11). As with Jesus, leadership acts as our vehicle for service: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
Jesus sketches a black-and-white contrast of the humble leader: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26).
As a humble leader, you’re a window to the source of light, scrupulously guiding gazes in the right direction: “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psalm 115:1).
Copyright © 2022 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), empowers parents to creatively engage kids in vibrant spirituality. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.