Humilitas

Humble people are a rarity. C. S. Lewis claimed that if we were to meet a truly humble person we’d likely not know it but merely notice the cheerfulness with which they lived. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people in our world today admire humility. I certainly do. Why is it so appealing? In his book, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership, John Dickson sets out to explain the appeal of humility and how some of history’s most admirable leaders possessed it.

Dickson’s simple definition of humility is: “a willingness to hold power in service of others.” The virtue is all about forgoing status and using our influence and resources for the good of others before simply thinking of ourselves. The book is full of illustrations about historical figures who have displayed humility and others who have not. Leaders such as Steve Jobs, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, and Jesus of Nazareth are all present in the text.

He acknowledges out of the gate the difficulties of writing about the topic of humility. He humorously titled his introduction, “Humility and How I Achieved It.” Of course, to claim to be humble is a certain sign that you are not humble. Once he breaks the ice, he begins to develop the thesis of his book, which is: “The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility.”

Dickson builds his case for humility and the people who posses it by exploring the history of the virtue. Dickson is an expert of the ancient Mediterranean world and cites many interesting cultural realities pertaining to humility. For instance, he rightly acknowledges the “honor-shame cultures” prevalent in the Greco-Roman world. Humility was not sought after by people living in the first century. It may be hard for us to imagine, but bringing honor to the family was a father’s biggest concern in antiquity. Dickson even says that “a Roman husband whose wife was found to be having an affair would feel more injured by the public shame she brought on him than by the betrayal of love itself.” In a nutshell, humility, as we understand it, did not exist in the first century.

So, where did our understanding of humility come from? I was surprised to learn that “the Judeo-Christian framework is responsible for the Western world’s fondness for this virtue.” The crucifixion of Jesus literally changed the world’s thinking about “greatness.” Generally speaking, our world no longer values the heavy-handed, “win at all costs” type of leader, but rather, the servant leader who is willing to put others before themselves. We feel valued and respected when leaders treat us with dignity. Dickson helpfully develops the origin of humility for his readers but gives them even more than that.

One chapter I found to be particularly interesting was his chapter on harmony. There, he argues that humility is better than “tolerance.” Our cultural understanding of tolerance, as defined by Dickson, is about agreeing with all viewpoints as equally true or valid. Within such a view, people are asked to soften their convictions so that others are not offended. He provides examples of why such an approach is untenable, which would be helpful for anyone who has wrestled with the tolerance issue.

Another chapter I enjoyed was about the common sense of humility. We don’t know everything. In fact, the saying that the more you learn the less you know has proved entirely true in my own life. In that sense, humility truly is common. Dickson also states that we know pride when we see it and are not particularly drawn to it. Conversely, when we see people who hold power in service of others, we’re inspired and often encouraged. Furthermore, he warns against competency extrapolation, that is, just because you’re an expert in one area does not make you an expert in another. He spends a good portion of the chapter discussing science and the vastness of the universe. I’m not sure what’s more humbling than considering the expansion of the universe and our place in it.

Humilitas is a relatively short read that could be completed in one sitting. The author covers other topics pertaining to humility such as it’s persuasiveness, it’s beauty, and it’s ability to generate personal growth or growth in teams. He also provides steps that a person can take to cultivate humility in their life and leadership. Everything covered has application to life, love, and leadership. I really enjoyed the personal stories Dickson shares like the time he and his buddies dressed to impress in order to sneak into a fancy hotel with the hopes of meeting U2 (which they managed to do). I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to grow in the virtue or as a leader, whether at home, work, or in the world.

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