Michael Jinkins: An education in humility

Some people have mistaken humility for weakness. But it’s not usually the humble that are weak. It’s the bullies.

I couldn’t sleep, or else I would have missed the interview. It was a re-run in the middle of the night a few weeks ago. Someone was interviewing David Brooks about his new book, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.” He told a story about how important humility is for leadership. The story was about Peter Drucker, the famed expert on organizational behavior.

Drucker had an exercise, maybe even an experiment, that he conducted over several years on his own behavior. Every time he made a major decision, he wrote down the decision and his rationale for making it. He put this in an envelope. Sealed it. And didn’t open it again for at least nine months. He said that as he surveyed his decisions over the course of years, about one third turned out to be good, one third bad, another third didn’t matter much one way or the other. And the reason he came to the decisions hardly ever mattered.

Considering how much energy and thought most of us devote to making good decisions, that’s humbling.

In the school I served before coming to Louisville, as dean, I led the faculty through a several-year process of curriculum review and revision. One aspect of our review process was to conduct extensive research, surveys and focus groups across the country to better understand the pastoral needs of the church. The most startling thing we learned did not appear until we disaggregated the data and analyzed responses from active lay members of congregations. They said -- and they said this overwhelmingly -- the two things they most needed from pastors: leadership and humility.

When I shared these findings with a group of academic deans later that year, one of them said to me: “I don’t see how in the world we can educate people for humility!” To which I responded: “I think we ought to try. We’ve shown you can educate for arrogance!”

Humility, the willingness to listen and learn from others, is essential to good leadership. It includes not taking yourself too seriously. But it also includes a positive force, something like an energy, to place the interests and needs of the whole body before one’s own interests and needs.

Some people have mistaken humility for weakness. In my experience, it’s not the humble that are weak, it’s the bullies. And we certainly don’t need more bullies in leadership. We need more people who can season their certainty with openness and their sense of self with a dash of humor.

Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.