The Promise of Humility
- Wednesday, July 05, 2006
In a culture that so often rewards the proud — a world quick to admire and applaud the prideful, a world eager to bestow the label “great” on these same individuals — humility occasionally attracts some surprising attention.
Take, for example, the bestselling book Good to Great. Since 2001, this leadership manual from Jim Collins has become one of the most popular and influential in the business world. I rarely meet a leader who hasn’t read it. The book is driven by this question: Can a good company become a great company, and if so, how? To find the answer, Collins and a team of researchers spent five years studying eleven corporations that had made the leap from being merely good companies to being great ones.
Later, I had the chance to hear Jim Collins speak on this topic to an audience of pastors and business leaders. In his presentation, Collins identified two specific character qualities shared by the CEOs of these good-to-great companies.
The first was no surprise: These men and women possessed incredible professional will — they were driven, willing to endure anything to make their company a success.
But the second trait these leaders had in common wasn’t something the researchers expected to find: These driven leaders were self-effacing and modest. They consistently pointed to the contribution of others and didn’t like drawing attention to themselves. “The good-to-great leaders never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes,” Collins writes. “They never aspired to be put on a pedestal or become unreachable icons. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.”
When Collins interviewed people who worked for these leaders, he says they “continually used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings; and so forth” to describe them.1
In God’s Gaze
Here, it appears, is an open acknowledgment of humility’s value — a recognition that humility works, that it goes far in building respect for those who have it and inspiring trust and confidence from people around them. Amazingly enough, humility sometimes attracts the world’s notice.
But here’s something even more astonishing: Humility gets God’s attention. In Isaiah 66:2 we read these words from the Lord:
This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.
This profound passage points us to an altogether different motivation and purpose for humility than we will ever find in the pages of a secular business manual. Here we find motivation and purpose rooted in this amazing fact: Humility draws the gaze of our Sovereign God.
If we understand the background of this passage, the meaning grows even richer. Here God is addressing the Israelites, a people with a unique identity. Chosen by God from among all the nations on earth, they possessed both the temple and the Torah — the Law of God. But they didn’t tremble at His word. In a sense, they had everything going for them except what was most important. They lacked humility before God.
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