I remember attending a staff meeting a few years ago and being reminded about the challenge of humility. I confessed then that I did not feel comfortable speaking each week in that room, my loud and edgy persona did not fit into the dark, cavernous and quiet space we inhabited. The reaction was telling. One person immediately spoke up to say that saying these kind of things would only contribute to looking weak, that I needed to sound strong if I wanted my words and leadership to heard and valued. I was confused then and now by what humility seems to do when someone vested with certain authority says s/he does not do all things well.
I do think leaders need to be careful that they are not always undermining their competence. I too worry when someone I know and respect is always putting him/herself down in public, suggesting others know more, that s/he can’t do what is being asked of her/him. But the opposite is equally jarring, leaders who seem to think that because they are competent, because they excel at certain tasks, because they have mastered a particular skill-set, that this qualifies them to sound like an expert in everything. Surely leadership is about stepping forward to offer knowledge that others don’t have, leading in ways you are uniquely qualified to provide, rallying people to our collective vision. But just as surely is not leadership also showing that you do not know everything, that you are not good at everything, that you as a leader need others as much as they need you?
People are genuinely surprised by the rise of Donald Trump. When he announced for President most people, even very knowledgeable politicos, pronounced this a publicity stunt. But Trump understood something many of us don’t, that there is an insatiable appetite for strength in our public arena. Former President Kennedy used to say that the great challenge of democratic government was the temptation of citizens to see the efficiency, the certainty, the effectiveness, of a strong man (or woman) as leader. I hear it all the time when persons I think of as insecure or a bully, or both, leaders with an iron fist, are experienced by those they treat like dirt with adoring praise. Comments like “but look how strong s/he is” I find chilling and disheartening.
Frankly that is exactly the kind of leader people of faith craved 2,000 years ago when the religious imagination of a strong leader was equated with King David. Given how poor peasant farmers were, how little women mattered to the world, the fact that people were bought and sold as slaves, wouldn’t it take a strong leader to right the ship and bring the corrupt and evil leaders to justice and the poor and suffering to a place of dignity and respect? But that was not the kind of leader Jesus was. The backstory, of a baby born to unwed parents, in a common stable, and then raised in a community that was the laughing stock of the Middle East, Nazareth, hardly conforms to a King on a horse marching with his army as a conquering hero. In fact, to really rub it in the Gospel writer describes a scene with Jesus on a common donkey, no army, entering less in fanfare and more in solidarity with his people.
Why is humility so difficult to accept in our leaders? The reality is that expecting our leaders to know everything only emboldens them to move outside their sphere of knowledge and make statements, make decisions and deploy resources that undermine the best interests of the community. The community is a place of diverse strengths and no one person has all the answers. S/he needs to avail her/himself of all the voices in the room and admitting that s/he does not know everything allows others to participate and feel empowered to build a better and stronger community.
I don’t know much. But this I know.