Before I started my sabbatical, I dreaded the sound of a ringing phone. But during my sabbatical, part of me craved it.
When the opening bell of my sabbatical rang, I didn’t expect to get nonstop e-mails. I didn’t think the organization would dismiss the team, cease operations, and file for Chapter 7. But it is still a stark realization when the phone doesn’t ring and everything keeps rolling without you. Sure, there was some transition—there always is—but checks were still cut and events were still planned and executed.
I was reminded in this moment of a philosophy I’d preached for years: It’s not about you.
From staff meetings to e-mails, I’d used this phrase to hopefully instill a spirit of humility and cooperation among my team. I hoped it would remind us all that the organization’s mission should always be more important than any individual’s personal ambition. But the phrase is easier to say than it is to embody.
Leaders talk a lot about delegating and raising up protégés and “working yourself out of a job” and creating a culture where nothing would change if you suddenly resigned. But if you hooked those same leaders up to a polygraph machine while they talked about these things, the needle would be jumping. Everyone wants to be needed. We want to know that if we vanished tomorrow, our absence would be felt and our presence would be missed.
Many leaders will tell you they don’t believe the universe—or even their department—revolves around them. But if you pop the organization’s hood, you’ll see a different picture. The team may not feel free to challenge the leader’s opinion. The company’s procedures may require the leader’s approval or signature before even minor decisions can be finalized. Or the culture requires constant praise and approval of the leader.
Humility looks good on everyone. So if you want to know if your culture is too centered and dependent upon you, then ask these diagnostic questions:
- Are others required to consult you before making basic decisions?
- Do you find yourself using the word I excessively?
- Must others keep you in the loop about details that do not directly affect your job?
- Do you have many trusted advisers who have permission to critique your decisions?
- Do you require regular applause and affirmation?
- Are people afraid to risk due to fear of backlash from you?
- Do you resist sharing blame if something goes awry?
- Do you receive criticism as regularly as you offer it to others?
Depending on how you’ve answered these questions, you may be realizing you’ve (perhaps unexpectedly) built a you-centric organization. If so, you need to get serious about developing a habit of meekness in your life.
One of the most influential leaders who ever lived is Jesus Christ. Two billion people on planet Earth today claim to follow his teachings. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave advice on how to influence others the way he did. His principles were as counterintuitive then as they are now, but one is especially relevant to this discussion:
“Blessed are the meek.” (Matthew 5:5)
Jesus’ advice in this simple statement runs against the leadership mantras most of us live by:
“Blessed are the strong.”
“Blessed are the powerful.”
“Blessed are the heavy-handed.”
“Blessed are the connected.”
“Blessed are the charismatic.”
“Blessed are the promoted.”
“Blessed are the in-charge.”
Jesus knew what Forbes writer George Bradt has noted: “One of the most fundamental lessons of leadership is that if you’re a leader, it’s not about you. It’s about the people following you. The best leaders devote almost all of their energy to inspiring and enabling others. Taking care of them is a big part of this.”1
A habit of meekness is the counterbalance to the habits of self-discovery and openness. As we focus on knowing and sharing ourselves with others, we must guard against turning inward and becoming exclusively selfish leaders. Developing a habit of meekness alongside these helps us know, share, and stay true to ourselves while remaining focused on others.
Meekness is not weakness. It’s power under control. It’s ambition grounded with humility and lived out in confidence, not arrogance. Quiet and appropriate confidence is way more attractive than loud and outspoken arrogance. Those who know the most many times are the ones who say the least.
Humble leaders are willing to pass on the credit but absorb the criticism, push others higher while making themselves lower, and put the team’s desires ahead of their own. A leader’s job is to shepherd, not necessarily to always shine. It’s about the mission, the team, and the tribe, not about you and your ego. Leaders today should be more conductors than solo artists.
Humble leadership looks like my friend Nicky Gumbel, the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton church, founder of the Alpha Course, and a popular religious leader. I met Nicky alone outside the backstage entrance of the Royal Albert Hall, one of the most iconic concert venues in all of London. He was unlocking his bike tied up to a streetlight, putting on his helmet, and preparing to ride home from a day at a conference, that he founded, of six thousand people. No entourage, no fanfare, just readying himself to ride a bike home. This image of the leader of a global church movement, standing by himself and unlocking his bicycle lock, has endured in my memory. It is a reminder of what meekness and humility really look like.
We hope you enjoyed this series from our friend Brad Lomenick. More on leadership identity and other essential leadership habits in H3 Leadership: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle, which released this past week.
Brad Lomenick is a renowned speaker, sought-after leadership consultant, and leader for 10 years of Catalyst, one of the largest gatherings of young Christian leaders in the nation. He is the author of The Catalyst Leader, and H3 Leadership. More at bradlomenick.com.