Saturday, December 31, 2011


HumilitasHumilitas by John Dickson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not an Andrew Murray type book on humility. This is a book on leadership, business leadership. However, it’s not a Stephen Covey type leadership book either. The author comes to the topic as a historian. Dickson’s basis thesis is that “the most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility” (19) and that if you want success, humility is a virtue to be cultivated. The book’s aim, therefore, is to convince the reader of the logic, beauty, and benefits of humility (29).

Dickson anticipates that many of us do not instinctively associate humility with leadership, and so he shows us some of the “strange places” it shows up in. Jim Collins, in his hunt for the components of great leadership, determined them to be “steely determination and an attitude of humility” (20).

Then there’s this quote from General Stanley McChrystal:

I have found in my experience that the best answers and approaches may be counter-intuitive. The opposite of what it seems you ought to do is what ought to be done. So, when I’m asked the question, What approach should we take in Afghanistan? I say, humility. (21)

The author defines humility as

the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others. (24)

Humility presupposes dignity, is willing, and is social (for the sake of others, unlike modesty, which is more a private condition of mind) (24-5).

Next follows a chapter on leadership, which Dickson discusses in such a way that we can immediately see the contribution humility can make to it. Because leadership is fundamentally relational—it’s all about leading and influencing others, after all—the leader’s most central tools are persuasion and example (43). By example, Dickson means the leader’s character. In order to be respected and followed, leaders must display honourable character, of which humility is key. Character is also a vital factor in a leader’s persuasiveness: “The perceived character of the persuader is central to his powers of persuasion” (140).

Humility’s other benefits are its abilities to inspire others (chapter 9), outdo “tolerance” at promoting harmony (chp 10), and promote growth in abilities (chp 7). Dickson provides a great example of the latter when he talks about humility’s contribution to science (118-20). Professor Raymond Tallis tells the story of the invention of the clinical trial and of how an 18th century ship physician named James Lind found that a diet of citrus fruits was effective in warding off scurvy. Tallis concludes:

So, let’s hear it for James Lind. The humility built into the very idea of the clinical trial: I don’t know whether this treatment based on anecdotal observation and consistent with my theories really works is the opposite of the argument from authority. (119-120)

In this case humility fostered knowledge.

Also, following Chesterton, Dickson writes: “Humility, by contrast, [Chesterton] said, reminds us that we are small and incomplete and so urges us on toward the heights of artistic, scientific and societal endeavour:

Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility…For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything. (120)

In chapter 3, the author shows that it makes sense for us to be humble quite apart from any discussion of humility’s benefits. When we look out horizontally at each other, and vertically at the universe (and its Origin), humility becomes us.

In chapters 5 and 6, the historian in Dickson kicks in especially. Humility hasn’t always been a virtue. The ancient world was an honour and shame culture, and thus humility didn’t rank very high. You would be humble before a god or emperor because they could kill you, “but humility before an equal or a lesser was morally suspect. It upset the assumed equation: merit demanded honour, thus honour was the proof of merit. Avoiding honour implied a diminishment of merit. It was shameful” (89).

He persuasively shows the starkness of change from the ancient world to the modern one by a section on boasting (90-95). The only thing that can account for so vast a change is a “humility revolution” (95).

Which leads to chapter 6 (“Cruciform: How a Jew from Nazareth Redefined Greatness”). Even more than Jesus’ revolutionary teachings, it was his execution that put humility on the map. So much so that humility, and the accompanying virtue love, become the central virtues that the Apostle Paul exhorts the Christians in Philippi to adopt 20 plus years later, and he bases his appeal in Jesus’ crucifixion and subsequent exaltation.

The final chapter discusses steps that we can take to grow in our humility.

This is a great little book. The author is a Christian writing about a subject that historically revolves around Jesus of Nazareth. But Dickson’s audience is a business one, not a Christian one, and he takes many precautions to keep his secular audience from being turned away. Too many precautions, would be my only complaint.

View all my reviews

No comments: