Alice von Hildebrand human dignity

Unlikely Leaders

6:00:00 AMVeronica Buehnerkemper

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. 

Alice von Hildebrand reminds us that “humility is a virtue that finds little favor in the secularistic world”.1 We are constantly pressured to succeed, to move forward and to be the best at all we do. We are supposed to define ourselves in terms of our ranking on an imaginary chart tracking our awards, recognitions, and positions. Consider for a moment the impact of this chart on relationships with others. We become prideful and boast of our achievements, using them to uphold the idea that we are more important than others. This destroys any chance at a healthy relationship between a leader and those whom he is leading. 

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.

Humility allows a leader to recognize the deserved respect and inherent dignity of each member of their team or audience. Rather than speaking down to them, the leader is able to engage them on the level of persons. The leader is able to ask rather than demand of their team, contributing to a healthy team relationship which is based on mutual respect.

Humility allows a servant leader to take on tasks that are far below their ability level, without grumbling or setting themselves above the task.

Humility allows a servant leader to give credit to their team, not taking all recognition for themselves, despite the importance of their role in pulling the project together. They acknowledge the work of all and the effort put forth to create a final product or bring about the success of a project.

While a leader is present to get things done and achieve some goal with their team, humility allows a servant leader to keep sight of the importance of the people who make up that team.

Thanks to a presentation given to a group of middle schoolers, more recently considered in light of Alice von Hildebrand’s The Privilege of Being a Woman, I now know what servant leadership is and I am able to recognize it’s practice (or lack thereof) in people around me.

I have worked for people who are willing to mop the floor if no one is available to do it and it needs to be done. I have seen teams led with such grace that an outsider would have difficulty spotting the leader, but from within roles are clear as day. I have worked with people who treat children with as much attention and care as the keynote speaker. These are true servant leaders.

The bottom line is this: Servant leadership is countercultural. Servant leadership is not a leadership technique.  It’s a way of life. After all, “what characterizes holiness is [a] limitless readiness to serve others”.4

(1) Alice Von Hildebrand, Privilege of Being a Woman, 31. 
(2) Alice Von Hildebrand, Privilege of Being a Woman, 25. 
(3) Investopedia.
(4) Alice Von Hildebrand, Privilege of Being a Woman, 32.

Image 1: Chris Potter
Image 2: Public Domain

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