The Best Message on Humility I Have Ever Heard

John Dickson’s message today on humility is the most insightful and helpful I’ve ever heard on the subject. Dickson is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Sr. Minister, St. Andrews Anglican Church, Sydney, Australia. Here’s a brief overview of his talk, and below are my notes:

Are prestigious titles and powerful positions prerequisites for impactful leadership? “You don’t need structural authority to be a leader of influence,” according to historian and social commentator John Dickson. “The leader’s strongest tool is humility,” he says. “It intensifies credibility.” Dickson, the author of Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (May 2011), investigates the crucial role humility plays in a leader’s life—and its theological, historical, and practical implications. Dickson issues this challenge: Navigate the complex intersection of leadership and humility, and learn to lead through persuasion, example, and influence rather than positional authority. Dickson offers practices to help you cultivate deeper authentic humility on your team—and in your soul.

“Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status and use your influence for the good of others. It is to hold your power in service of others.”

The best leaders are marked by humility. Humility is what makes the great, great.

5 evidences of this:

1. Humility is common sense

It is a reflection of the deep structure of reality. None of us is an expert at everything. What we don’t know and can’t do, far exceeds what we do know and can do.

2. Humility is beautiful

It is a simple psychological reality: we are more attracted to the great who are humble, than to the great who know it and want to know us too. “Presumption diminishes greatness. Humility enhances greatness; is greatness.” The same is true in any context.

But did you know that humility has not always been admired? In ancient Rome, humility was a negative word associated with defeat. Humility before the gods and emperors was advised, but humility towards an equal was regarded as ill-informed. One of the prized virtues was “love of honor.”

Academic research found that a humility revolution took place in the middle of the first century. Not only because of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ crucifixion changed the way people understood greatness and humility. The cross of Christ was contrary to the understanding of greatness in the ancient world. The early Christians had to deal with this question: Did his crucifixion mean he wasn’t as great as they thought? No. They realized: “If the greatest man we have ever known sacrificed his life on the cross, then greatness must consist in willing sacrifice and holding power for the good of others.” And of course this is Matthew 20:28 and Phil 2:3-8.

Interview with a researcher: “The admiration of humility comes entirely from Christian influence. Entirely.” Western culture has been profoundly shaped by the cross of Christ — even long after it ceased to be explicitly Christian.

3. Humility is generative

It generates new knowledge, new abilities. The logic is easy: the proud person (say, at a conference like this) will go away with less than the humble person, who is looking to learn. This is even true in science. Think about how science works: it is basically a humble confession that you can’t just observe the world and describe it; you have to test your theory.

The scientific revolution is the result of a humility revolution. Humility generates science.

True also in business. John Kotter tracked the careers of 115 of his students from the Harvard Business School. One student was average in class, but ended up being an incredible leader. Lucky break? No. What took him further was his humility. “Confronting his mistakes, he minimized the arrogant attitudes that often accompany success.” He watched more closely and listened more closely than others. “The humble place is the place of growth.”

4. Humility is persuasive

The textbook on persuasion for 2,000 years boils down what persuades to 3 things: logos (intellectual component), pathos (aesthetic or emotional), and ethos (character of the persuader). Aristotle said: the character is the most significant. “We believe good-hearted people to a greater extent and more quickly than we do others on all subjects in general and completely so in cases where there is not exact knowledge but room for doubt. Character is almost, so to speak, the controlling factor in persuasion.”

5. Humility is inspiring

“The real power of effective leadership is maximizing other people’s potential, which inevitably demands ensuring they get the credit. When our ego won’t let us build another person up, then the effectiveness of the organization goes down.”

When leaders appear aloof and unapproachable, we admire them, but we don’t imitate them. But humble leaders: We don’t just admire them; we aspire to be like them.

Four tools of leadership: ability, authority, character, persuasion. Some of the most inspiring leaders in history had no structural authority. They just had truckloads of ability, character, and persuasion. “Sometimes you don’t need the power of the hire and fire. You don’t need armies to change empires or individuals.”

  • John Dickson

    thanks for this summary. I don’t reckon I could have done it better. Warmly,

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  • Carl Peterson

    I always cringe when I see humility used as a tool of leadership. I think because often humility is just that a tool. It just often seems fake and self serving. Be humble so you can lead. LOL! i do not like humility talk when the article is all about how to persuade others.

  • Matt

    I agree that we don’t want to view humility as a means to something else. “Be humble so you can lead better.” We are to be humble because it is right and pleasing to God–and we should take joy in it for that reason. But it’s not a means to something else.

    I don’t think John intends to imply that humility is a means to something else, or that we should seek it out in order to be better leaders. Though I can see how it can come across that way, at least in these brief notes. What he was doing was showing the good fruit that humility produces and the value of humility to the world–especially in light of the fact that, before Christianity, it was not valued in the culture.

    One caveat: I think pursuing humility so that we can serve others better–not for our sakes, but for theirs–probably is a good thing. I would have to think about that more. But if a leader realizes that he is proud, and that this is, of course, harming those he is leading, it makes sense, if he cares about the people he leads, that he would seek to become more humble. Not only or mainly for that reason, but it seems like perhaps a correct response for someone who genuinely desires to serve those that he or she is leading.

  • Carl Peterson


    I agree with everyone you wrote. I had some caveats in my original post but took them out when I submitted it because i wanted to get mypoint across more clearly. I can be very cynical (I think largely due to the terrible leaders I have seen everywhere in life including hte church). But I know leadership can be humble and if a leader is truly wanting to serve and do what is best for others then that is good and humble. They are not oxymorons. Although I will say that they are most of the time in practice.

    Did not intend to really argue against a strawman but I was telling the truth that i always do cringe when I see articles or here speeches that a way to be a better leader is to be humble. Most of the time the focus is on how one can lead and not on how one can serve. If you get my drift. But anyways thought I would just put in my two cents. Hopefully all in the church can lead because we are al called to lead. Ephesians 4.

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  • Daniel Bryan

    Thank you for summarizing Dickson’s take on Humility. I love the quotes you chose and your explanations. I will be resourcing you in my blog today @