Humble Leadership

When Manchester City beat Watford in the recent FA Cup Final, I probably wasn’t the only one to  notice the reaction of Pep Guardiola, the City manager, as the fifth and then sixth goals went in. His head was in his hands. Was it embarrassment… or was he humbled by what his team had done for him?

And then, amidst the champagne, streamers and fireworks, as the victorious players held the trophy aloft and then ‘dancing’ in the way only professional footballers can, he simply stood back, watching. A time to let his team have the glory and the honour. ‘Hey, look at them, not me,’ he seemed to say. A sign of leading from within. A sign of humble leadership.

While we might long to see more humility in our political leaders, let’s consider another example of this exceptional gift.

A recent study of seven successful CEOs found they all identified a common theme: vulnerability. ‘Vulnerable leadership is humble leadership,’ wrote Catherine Llewelyn-Evans. ‘Able to acknowledge its own temptations, frailties, and limitations, it will not set itself above others, nor stand on its own importance (for example, when Jesus lays aside his robes to wash the disciples’ feet [John 13])… It is a kind of leadership which — released from its need to posture or impress — gives others permission to be vulnerable, and releases them from fear or guilt.’

Or as John Baldoni put it, ‘Humility is an approach to life that says, “I don’t have all the answers and I want your contribution.” Humility is… the acceptance of individual limitations.’

Humility is grateful for those contributions and expresses that gratitude. It also embeds the ability not just to say ‘I got that wrong’ but also to climb that sometimes elusive next step of ‘You were right.’

In the well-established daily pattern of readings from the Rule of St Benedict (reflections on which are in the book Life with St Benedict) on the day this post is published, 26 May, there begins a series of readings on Chapter 7 – a chapter which is all about humility.

In this longest chapter of the Rule, and using the imagery of a ladder, St Benedict helps us take steps towards what he calls ‘the highest summit of humility’.

Using paraphrases of what he wrote, let’s climb the ladder together, shall we…

  1. Revere God at all times
  2. Align our lives with God’s will not our own.
  3. Listen to our leaders.
  4. Do what God wants and listen to God when life is tough.
  5. Admit when we get it wrong and receive the forgiveness that comes from doing so.
  6. When we feel badly treated, insignificant, and no better than anyone or anything else, know we are always with God. And God is always with us.
  7. Humbling ourselves and being humbled by circumstances helps us know we are precious to God.
  8. Remember that the words and actions of others influence how we act and behave.
  9. Be careful about what we say to others and how we listen to them.
  10. Laugh – being respectful to others when we do so.
  11. ‘Speak gently, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably’.
  12. Be humble in our actions and not just in how we think and feel.

Joan Chittister writes that this chapter on humility ‘does not say, “Be perfect.” It says, “Be honest about what you are and you will come to know God.”’

Humility in leadership – or any other aspect of life, for that matter – is an approach, a gift, which enables us to shout, ‘Hey, look at you!’ not ‘Hey, look at me’.

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Being Honoured

“I don’t want to get to retirement and think, ‘Was that it?’”

Well, that was 20 years ago. Today, I got to retirement. That was it. And that was good. So good.

For most of the intervening 20 years, I’ve worked with the most wonderful team of colleagues. Caring, supportive and one with a common purpose. A team with a default answer of ‘yes’ – or at least, ‘let’s think about it’. Rather than the demoralising ‘No, we can’t do that’ attitude common in so many workforces. It’s a team which values each other for who they are, not just what they do. I know I have been very fortunate. It has been a privilege and an honour.

For many people, the only reason they know they’re doing a good job are the times when they’re not being criticised. Not that I’ve never been criticised. Far from it. I’ve upset people. I’ve trampled over some. I’ve poached staff from others. I’ve worked with difficult people. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been bullied, shouted at and disrespected. Everything that happens to everybody at some point or other. That’s working life. 41 years of it.

Yet many people are never thanked for the work they do or honoured for who they are. For me, though, these last few months have been humbling – and somewhat overwhelming. Nominated for a NHS 70th Anniversary Parliamentary Award (which I didn’t get) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from my employer (which I did). And then there was: ‘Urgent – On Her Majesty’s Service’. A letter from the Palace. Six weeks of silence. Nobody could know. When they did, the congratulations were overwhelming. 153 emails. 21 cards. A real honour and deeply humbling. All too much, though. I’ve only been doing my job.

Buckingham Palace last Friday and farewell lunch today. And it all happened again. Cards, congratulations and compliments. Both amazing days. Quite surreal at times. Asked by Prince William if I (me!) thought he (him!) was making progress in supporting employers regarding mental health. The farewell lunch gathered together over 50 people who have supported and taught me so much over the years. Another honour and privilege.

A generous farewell gift pays for a specially commissioned icon to be written (the technical term for icon painting) by Brother Michael OSB, Benedictine monk at Mucknell Abbey. It will be based on the famous 15th century icon by Andrei Rublev. The Trinity.

The icon depicts, from left to right, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The embodiment of Love. Seated around a table. At the front, an empty place. A place of honour and privilege – and not just for the honoured and privileged. A place at which anyone can sit.

Working or retired. Happy at work or not. Employed or unemployed. Parent at home, student or volunteer. Well or unwell. Feeling loved or unloved. Of faith or no faith. Whatever your situation. The place awaits you.

A place of honour and privilege.

A place to which you are invited.

Invited by Love to be honoured for who you are.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Love (III) by George Herbert

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Leading from within

It was the farewell lunch for a long-standing employee. It had been a difficult few years. Change and uncertainty. Redundancies. A pensions black hole in to which the business was falling. Restructure after restructure wrought havoc among the team. It wasn’t simply that they lacked leaders – it was also that some decided not to follow. Returning for the occasion, the former Chief Executive, whose success had been measurable, spoke fondly of the good days: “A time when all the noses were facing in the same direction.”

“Different people have different definitions of leadership,” said former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. “I believe that leadership is not about the individual. When you have macho leaders who believe that they have to shine and it all has to be about them (they are) forgetting that what is required is the welfare of society and the people they serve.”

Leaders will tell us there is no ‘I’ in team yet some behave in a way that says there is no ‘u’ in me.

As Methodist Church leader and Human Resource specialist, Janet Arthur put it: ‘While it (is) necessary to have vision, passion, make firm and decisive decisions and ensure (others) do not suffer… It is equally important for a leader to demonstrate nurture and care for their people so they remain motivated and willingly come along with (them). Different leadership approaches may be suited to different people and issues… leadership has to have a purpose; and a key part of the leader’s role is to work out which approach will best enable them to drive positive change.’ (Parenthesis mine)

The classic Biblical image of a leader is that of a shepherd. In some countries, the shepherd goes in front of the flock and the sheep follow. Each shepherd has a particular sound they make and the sheep recognize and respond to that call. Elsewhere, the shepherd drives the sheep from behind and they may have one or two dogs to help. In a sense we need both types of shepherd. Both types of leaders. We need people who will lead from the front: bringing ideas and a vision of where we are going. And we need those who lead from behind, encouraging us to move forward. And yes, we need a dog or two – people who will keep us together. People who help to keep our noses facing in the same direction.

But there is a third type of leader. The one who leads from within.

We see this in Jesus. Jesus’ ministry was a collaborative one. He called people to be part of it – to follow him. He led a mixed bunch of people – not just the core team of twelve disciples but others such as Mary Magdalene, the siblings Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Joanna, Susannah and Salome. Numerous men and women followed his leadership, sometimes at risk to themselves, like the high-ranking Jewish leaders Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.

Jesus was a leader who saw potential in people. He accepted their questions and doubts. He knew they would make mistakes. He taught them. He listened to them. He affirmed them. He corrected them. Instead of doing everything himself, he equipped others to do what was needed for the purpose of his work. There was a humility in Jesus’ leadership. His leadership wasn’t about himself. His leadership was about bringing glory to God and enabling people, everyone of us, to experience God’s love in all its fullness.

Christians don’t have the monopoly on good attributes and good works (indeed there are some churchgoers in whom you’d be hard pushed to see a connection between belief and behaviour) but in Jesus we see a role model for leaders.

Leaders who see potential and accept questions, doubts and mistakes. Leaders who listen, teach, affirm, correct. Leaders who don’t do everything but equip people to do it for them and the organisation. Leaders who are not in it for themselves but are in it for others.

It can’t be that difficult, can it?

There are leaders and managers who display those attributes and plenty of them. Next time, I’ll tell you about someone who was such a leader.

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