A leader’s humility

By John Dickson, founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity and an honorary fellow of the department of ancient history at Macquarie University, Australia

Editor’s note: The Habitat for Humanity Affiliate Conference 2013 will be held March 11-14. The conference is a learning and networking opportunity for Habitat affiliates created specifically for the purpose of strengthening our affordable housing and community revitalization work in communities.

Dr. John Dickson is well-suited to speak on the conference’s closing day. His journey has been an eclectic one: from full-time musician to professional speaker, author, biblical historian, TV presenter and multimedia think tank director. In addition to his passion for promoting public understanding of the Christian faith, Dickson is fascinated by the paradoxical connection between high-level achievement and compassion and humility, themes explored in his professional keynote address and latest book Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love and Leadership.

I fell into humility by accident when I was invited to be part of a research project at Macquarie University’s ancient history department, investigating the origins of humility in Western ethics. It was not because I was known to be humble.

Nevertheless, I’ve waded in the ancient literature on ethics, persuasion and leadership for more than a decade, and, more recently, I have dipped my toe into the impressive modern literature on leadership. One thing is dazzlingly clear: The most influential leadership is character-driven. People line up to follow those whose leadership they truly trust.

There is an apocryphal story about the ancient Athenian orator Pericles, a renowned speaker in his own right, who once lamented how little influence he had compared with a lawyer and statesman named Demosthenes. “When Pericles speaks,” he said of himself, “the people say, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes speaks, the people say, ‘Let us march!’” The story isn’t true, but the point is. There is a difference between mere rhetoric and real persuasion.

Aristotle, who wrote a defining text on “rhetoric” three centuries before Christ, said that the most powerful dimension in persuasion was ethos, or “character.” “Character,” he insisted, “is almost, so to speak, the controlling factor in persuasion.” According to the Greek philosopher, one could be an all-powerful senator (or a modern business guru), and it would not count nearly as much to an audience as the perceived integrity and authenticity of the leader. Mere reputation cannot match true character.

Harvard’s leadership guru, Professor John P. Kotter, makes the same point: Moral credibility is key to influence. “Many things contribute to credibility,” he says, “the track record of the person delivering the message, the communicator’s reputation for integrity and trustworthiness and the consistency between words and deeds.” This inevitably means that people are watching leaders’ lives, not just listening to their words.

A military commander who is known to put the troops before his ambition will be able to persuade soldiers to take a course of action that might otherwise seem incautious. A football coach known to be fair is unlikely to be accused of favoritism or self-interest when he makes a contentious substitution. An executive who is widely appreciated for taking the time to listen to staff before making critical decisions will gain a hearing from employees when she announces reshuffles and layoffs. An aid worker renowned for listening to local recipients’ needs as much as Western donors’ wishes is more likely to leave a lasting legacy. The examples could be multiplied.

In academia, business, sports, politics, as well as in the not-for-profit sector, a leader’s humility — the noble choice to hold power in service of others — can exert a powerful, if intangible, force. Those in the influencing business should remember one golden rule: The most persuasive person in the world is the one we know has our best interests at heart.