The Exercise of Humility

The first time I went to an Orthodox Christian Church, it was with a group of confirmation students from my Presbyterian Church. Not knowing the tradition, we just happened to end up at Forgiveness Vespers,” the service that kicks off the Orthodox Season of Lent. At this service, parishioners line up around the perimeter of the church sanctuary and walk around the circle hugging each other and asking for forgiveness.

This was a rather intimate tradition for 8th graders who didn’t know anyone at the church to be participating in. Some were visibly uncomfortable, but gamely went through the ritual anyway. The experience taught me a lesson in humility. Truly, it’s hard to maintain a sense of pride when going through a process like this. Asking a stranger for forgiveness intrinsically means that you have faults and sins for which you owe just about anyone an apology. I’ll admit, the concept seems strange at first. It’s a powerful exercise in humility, though.

Arthur C. Brooks writes for The Atlantic about the benefits of humility and how it can increase happiness. Brooks starts off the article with an analogy from the Matrix about taking the red pill. He then moves on to the research on the subject of humility.

Humble people are also more attractive to romantic partners. Dating research finds that most people find humble potential partners more appealing than those who are arrogant; the humble ones also tended to have more successful long-distance relationships. When people are prompted to think about humility in experiments, they show greater self-control. (No doubt this is why people who score higher on measures of humility are less likely to abuse drugs compared with those who are less humble.) Humility also can make you more generous with others, and more effective as a leader.

As someone in a leadership position, I’m especially interested in the possibility that humility can make you a better leader. Of course, this goes hand in hand with servant leadership, which necessitates a certain measure of humility. Being able to admit when you don’t know is one of the toughest things about maintaining humility in leadership. It makes you vulnerable and, in some ways, can undermine your authority. You have to let go of the sense of control and be willing to accept that you can be a competent leader without knowing — or even appearing to know — everything. You also have to let others take the spotlight from you. To serve those who report to you, you need to let them shine. It’s tempting sometimes to take the microphone, but sometimes it takes being mindful to step back a bit.

I sometimes struggle with humility, but I do think I’m making progress. There’s no doubt that it’s a skill you can practice, like any other. I hope and pray that I’m in the right place to do just that.


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