The other day I was listening to Radio Sport as I drove around in my car. The announcer was talking about the fact that he thought most New Zealand sports people seemed to be too humble and self-effacing. But now things were changing he thought. In his view, we are now seeing a new generation growing up who were much more brash and arrogant.
I couldn’t help but feel some sadness as I listened to this, because humility has always been seen as one of the greatest of Christian virtues. The devaluing of this virtue is one more reflection of the drift from Christian values in our society.
The announcer was correct in his evaluation of the past characteristics of New Zealand sports people. You don’t have to look far to see many examples of this. Richie McCaw is a good contemporary example, while someone like Sir Peter Blake would be a good example from a previous generation.
I remember once seeing a TV interview with Sir Edmund Hillary, where the interviewer said, “you are a very humble man Sir Ed.” “Well”, he replied, “I’ve got plenty to be humble about.” There is something delightfully appealing about such an attitude.
American author Jim Collins has recently drawn our attention to the crucial role of humility in the task of leadership. In his book Good to Great he talks about the findings of his research students that the very best corporate leaders seemed to combine in themselves two seemingly contradictory values.
One is a strong commitment to achievement in their particular field, and the second is a high level of personal humility. From this Collins went on to devise a five-tiered understanding of leaders. Level five leaders, he said, combined these two qualities. I’ve heard him subsequently say that a number of Christian people had talked to him about the greatest level five leader of all time and some had even given him a New Testament so he could read about this leader.
Society as a whole is probably ignorant of the fact that it is because of the spread of Christianity that humility has come to be regarded as a virtue in our society. Prior to the coming of Jesus and in those parts of the world where the gospel has not taken root, humility is not seen as a virtue.
The main thing in those situations is the maintenance of honour and the avoidance of shame. This is clearly seen in our own country’s history, when prior to the arrival of the gospel the practise of utu was so widespread, and it was so difficult to break the endless cycle of revenge and counter revenge to maintain the tribe or the family’s honour.
Over against the common values in a pagan society, the early Christians faced a dilemma. Their leader had faced death as a criminal, dying on a cross, the most shameful place of all in the days of the Roman Empire. So what did this do to the tradition values of honour? Looking at the cross it would seem that the greatest place of honour for the followers of Jesus was actually the place of greatest shame. The Christian value of humility comes straight from the cross.
Obviously this ought to profoundly shape our understanding of the nature of leadership for followers of Jesus and the nature of leadership in the Christian community. This makes it all the more sad that in the past generation there seems to have been growing a new cult of leadership, characterised more by self-promotion and self enhancement than the Christian value of humility.
In this new understanding of success, the outward trappings of achievement get exalted above the path of humility we are all called to follow no matter how difficult it may be. Not just among leaders, but among church members too, there does seem to be a new spirit of self-assertiveness abroad.
Over the last couple of years I’ve heard numerous stories of self-opinionated members of churches who have caused havoc and wrecked churches through being grasped by values that are the antithesis of humility.
If the commentator on Radio Sport was correct and New Zealand’s sports people, and presumably society too, are showing fewer signs of humility these days, then what a challenge this presents to those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus to walk more faithfully in his path of humility.
– Murray Robertson, Leadership Development Network