I first heard the phrase ‘servant leadership’ at a middle school retreat. I had no clue what it meant. As a thirteen year old, the two words seemed to contradict each other. Even now they don’t always make sense together. A servant who is a leader? A leader who is a servant? What does that even mean?
I soon realized that I could not understand servant leadership without an understanding of humility. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines humility as “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people.” If I’m going to be quite honest though, I know that I am better at some things than other people. Isn’t this obvious? Some people are better at public speaking, or writing, or solving problems, or playing basketball. So then, if I practice humility, am I merely succeeding in deceiving myself? Well frankly, no. While each of us has unique strengths, each of us also has weaknesses. The combination of these strengths and weaknesses is what makes us who we are as individuals.
Humility relates to how we acknowledge these strengths and weaknesses as contributing to our value as a person.
Humility means recognizing that strengths and weaknesses do not affect the ontological value of the human person.
Humility realizes that the woman sitting beside us in Mass is no better or worse than the man begging for food on the street corner. Do we not all exist and breathe the same air? Are we not all made of the same cells and owe our existence to those who have come before us? Humility recognizes that we cannot compare ourselves in terms of our value as people. No one has more or less value as a human being than another.
Now striving for success is not inherently bad. I’m not saying that you should avoid improving yourself and working to become a better person, doing all that you can to impact the world. But Alice von Hildebrand reminds us that, “against the background of the supernatural, the inanity of human praise becomes evident”.2 Accolades may contribute to our status on Earth, but they should not be our ultimate goal. We must remember that we are not only the products of ourselves, but of our parents and grandparents, of our communities and schools, and ultimately our very being is a gift from God. Thus, we find that humility comes from recognizing the value of each human person as a person, created by God. And God does not keep track of achievements and failures. He’s not one for charts and rankings.
This honest gratitude in realizing our equal littleness before God is the foundation for humility and the foundation for servant leadership. Humility is essential in servant leadership. Servant leadership seeks authority rather than power. A servant leader “demonstrates the characteristics of empathy, listening, stewardship and commitment to personal growth toward others”.3 When a leader practices humility, especially in their role of responsibility, they bring a relational element to their leadership.
(1) Alice Von Hildebrand, Privilege of Being a Woman, 31.
(2) Alice Von Hildebrand, Privilege of Being a Woman, 25.
(4) Alice Von Hildebrand, Privilege of Being a Woman, 32.
Image 1: Chris Potter
Image 2: Public Domain