How Can I Lead With Humility?


This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

Ask Mission Central: Question Two

“How do I remain humble when I feel I’ve been gifted to lead a project?”


–Kyle
Glendale Heights, IL

The Paschal Lamb

Answer

When I think about humble leaders, the name Kevin immediately leaps to my mind. When I was about thirteen years old, Kevin joined the preaching team at my home church. At that time, he worked as an executive leader at a nearby media ministry, a respected organization with international reach. Kevin was, as they say, a big deal. He made decisions that influenced hundreds of people, and he made them well.


But Kevin did not carry himself as though he was a big deal. On Sundays when he wasn’t preaching, you could find him serving on the lug-things-around team as we set up and took down each week for services in a high school auditorium. He would often lower his six-foot-four* figure down to the level of a toddler so he could look them in the eye and smile. He took an interest in the details of other people’s lives, even awkward teenagers with poor hair choices, encouraging them and naming the specific ways he saw God at work in their life.


Kevin eventually got ordained and joined our church staff team. While he was excited to focus on prayer and preaching, it was a big “step down” in terms of the number of people he was managing, office efficiency, and budget power. What’s more, that prayer and preaching had to go on the back burner much of the time. Right around the time Kevin joined staff, we had the chance to buy an old factory and turn it into a sanctuary. The superhuman task of guiding the whole process, from chemical mitigation to architecture to carpet color, fell to Kevin.


And then, only a few years after we moved into our beautiful new home, Kevin and his wife answered a call to pastor a church that was ten times smaller, made up of a few faithful families and many senior citizens. Instead of calling the shots in a globally-recognized ministry, he’s now doing the day-in, day-out work of shepherding vulnerable people.

Downward Mobility

That career trajectory is one of downward mobility, to use an apt phrase from spiritual writer Henri Nouwen. On the ladder of human achievement and power, Kevin has climbed down a few rungs, and then climbed down a few rungs again. But that’s what makes him like Jesus: his willingness to sacrifice prestige and places of honor, even those he has worked hard for, for the sake of love.


At the same time, Kevin has never stopped leading. At each juncture, his skill as a decision-maker, communicator, and strategist has been a boon to the community around him. He hasn’t served by stepping back from leadership, but by stepping into it in the way needed at each moment. Jesus warned his disciples about leadership-as-usual, where those in authority “lord [their power] over” others (Mark 10:42 NIV). Yet Jesus’ answer is not to stop leading, but rather to do everything as a servant, or even as a “slave” (10:44). We are to lay our lives down for others, like Jesus did, in our leadership as in all aspects of our life.

Motivation

Jesus’ words indicate that part of leading with humility is our motivation: Are we leading in order to “get ahead,” to secure something for ourselves or even for our own ego? Or are we leading simply because we are in a circumstance where leadership is needed, and stepping in is the best way to serve?


At the same time, it’s easy to kid ourselves about the purity of our own motives. Of course we like the idea of leading in order to serve, but is that actually what’s going on in our heart? We always have room to grow in learning to serve. Here are a few questions to ask that can help you honestly assess your motives, and spark practices that reinforce a posture of humility:

  • Do I “need” my leadership project to succeed in a certain way? Why?This question helps us to see if we’re trying to secure our ego through our work. The humble leader is free to serve rightly, honoring everyone’s needs and limitations (including their own), because failure is not an existential threat.
  • What can I do today that’s menial or boring, just to help out?Although a wise principle of leadership is “only do what only you can do,” this approach needs to be tempered with a willingness to do anything. Jesus was not doing what only he could do when he washed the disciples’ feet; there were slaves for that. But he did it out of love. We can let love motivate us to find our simple acts of service, too.
  • How can I celebrate someone else’s success to encourage them?In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes that “self-forgetfulness” is “the true end of Humility” (chapter XIV). One of the best ways to grow in humility as a leader is to just start focusing on other people! We could all stand to spend fewer minutes stewing on our own successes and failures, and more speaking life-giving words to our teammates.

If humility seems far off to you, that’s good; it means you’re really grappling with how your heart works. But be encouraged! Jesus can work his grace in surprising ways as we take simple steps to think about ourselves a little less each day. He’s the one who can give us the true motivation of serving others as we lead.


*In keeping with the family practice of humility, Kevin’s daughter corrected me; he is only six-foot-three-and-a-half.

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