John Dickson wears many hats. He teaches ancient history at Australia's Macquarie University, co-directs the Centre for Public Christianity, and is senior minister at St. Andrew's Anglican Church Roseville (Sydney). His new book Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (Zondervan, 2011) explores a virtue necessary for faithful service in all those capacities: humility. Leadership Journal's Marshall Shelley and Drew Dyck spoke with Dickson about where humility comes from and why it's so important.
You call humility the "lost key" to leadership. Why do you consider it lost?
Lost is perhaps an overstatement for a subtitle of a book. We haven't completely forgotten humility. Humility is something that Western culture intuitively likes. We admire the great person who's humble. But it's something we've turned our attention away from. There hasn't been any kind of analysis of why it works or why it's helpful for our culture. I think of Jim Collins' book, Good to Great, where he found that some of the most impressive corporate leaders had what he described as a paradoxical blend of professional will and personal humility. But he doesn't analyze how on earth that could be. He doesn't examine what makes humility so powerful.
How does your book address this omission?
I try to come at the "humility effect" from a number of different angles. First, I'm trying to talk about the positive benefits of humility, why humility has a significant influence that we're not taking enough notice of. The other thing I'm trying to do in the book is tell the story of how humility came to be valued in Western history.
Ten years ago I was involved in a post-doctoral research project looking at the origins of humility in a secular ancient history department. The finding is pretty clear that humility came to be valued in the Western tradition because of Jesus and the early Christians. For an ancient person, to pursue honor was a great good; to experience shame was the greatest of all possible harms. Christians had to reflect ethically and socially on the death of Jesus. The most shameful, honor-less place in the empire was a cross. So they had to ask themselves, What does this mean? The greatest man we've ever known died on a cross. Was he not as great as we thought?
How did they resolve the seeming contradiction?
The early Christians decided that greatness had to be redefined to include this word that had, up to that point, been associated with servitude, the Greek word tapeinos (or, in Latin, humilitas). The Christians started using these words that used to mean humiliation, as a virtue, because that's what Jesus experienced. Christians recognized that the lowly place—the place of humility—can be the place of growth and learning and glory. Jesus went to the lowest place and was raised to the highest place.
The point I'm trying to make is that humility entered into Western culture because of the event of the cross. That means our culture remains cruciform (shaped by the cross) long after it stopped being Christian. I'm trying to tell that story without being too theological or too nerdy in a book that's really designed for Christian, and even non-Christian, leaders.
What does humility look like in a Christian leader today?
Recently Martin Hengel passed away. He was probably the greatest New Testament historian ever; he was very influential in my life. Story after story is told of how Hengel would have his students at Tübingen University come to his home on Friday evenings for meals and discussions. This is quite rare for the "Herr Professor," who is highly esteemed in German universities. But Hengel did it regularly, and people fondly remember the way he included them. His wasn't influential just because he was a brilliant scholar. It was the fact that he let people come very close, that he shared his life with them—that humility is what made his influence lasting. Whether we're talking about Gandhi changing an empire or Professor Hengel changing an entire generation of scholars, this humility, this cruciform life, is the most compelling aspect of the leader's life.