John Dickson’s Humilitas is a study of the virtue of humility. He states, “My thesis is simple: The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility.” (p. 19). He writes with an easy common-sense style and gives us examples of humble leaders. I found it equally to be a study of humility that is both historical and philosophical. It presents to the reader examples that are Christ centered and as well as examples that are secular. The author’s use of description and example makes the clear case that leaders will be more competent and successful leaders if they have the character quality of humility.
Humility is a powerful virtue. It can be used to encourage, support, and unite groups of people on a large scale. It can also help build strong bonds between individuals. And what I appreciated most from the book is the potential for the growth and leadership development of the individual through the practice of humility in everyday life. Humility is an enabling virtue. When one’s own greatness is offered in humility to another, they believe that they can achieve the same greatness.
Dickson deftly examines the merits of humility, using well thought out stories and examples from the science, faith, and business communities. Through these, and personal examples from his life, Dickson builds the case that not only is developing good character a necessary component to realizing humility, but that humility also helps us persuade others which in turn helps to develop our own character.
It was interesting to learn about the history of “honour” and shame in ancient Mediterranean society when humility was considered a weakness (though I do believe there are many who still consider it so). He writes: ‘Humility before the gods, of course, was appropriate because they could kill you. Humility was advisable before the emperors too, for the same reason. But humility before an equal or a lesser was morally suspect. It upset the assumed equation: merit demanded honor; thus honor was the proof of merit. Avoiding honor implied a diminishment of merit. It was shameful”. (p. 89)’
Dickson examines the character of Jesus as a perplexing person during this time of honor-shame setting. He called himself a King, all the while teaching with gentle (lowliness/submissive) persuasion. Jesus according to the author also “seems to have delighted in turning upside down the ancient notions of greatness and servitude”. (p. 103).
The impact of Jesus Christ’s influence on this unfamiliar concept of humbling yourself and becoming a servant was in direct opposition to the self-promotion of Greek and Roman philosophy. I had not realized Jesus’ teachings about humility had their roots in the honor and shame culture of that time and that humility came to be valued in Christianity and Western culture as a result.
My favorite chapter in this book was titled ‘Harmony: Why Humility Is Better Than Tolerance.’ I internalized and learned a lot in this chapter. Prior to reading it I felt that to consider myself a tolerant person I needed to” agree that all viewpoints are equally true or valid”. (p. 164). This was uncomfortable, and I knew I was not being true to myself, but it did “keep the peace”. Now I learned that I need to be more honest and forthright and express my opinions and even to those I know have contrary beliefs. And to do so showing respect and friendship. In other words, to also be humble. “It’s where we learn to respect and care even for those with who we profoundly disagree” (p. 169). And as Dickson concludes, ‘We maintain our convictions but choose never to allow them to become justification for thinking ourselves better than those with contrary convictions’ (p. 170).
Dickson contends that humility is an important leadership quality because humility is persuasive. ‘We are more attracted to the great who are humble than to the great who know it and want everyone else to know it as well.’ (p. 69). He relates that the essence of leadership is the ability to persuade others to accomplish a task. A humble leader is usually more persuasive, and consequently more effective. He quotes Aristotle’s belief that character of a speaker is the defining factor in persuasion: ‘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.’ (p. 139). We trust the humble more than the trusting the proud and domineering to act in our fair-minded interest.
Humilitas goes on to show even more pragmatic advantages of humility, such as it unlocks doors for learning from others, and motivates others around us to achieve their greatest potential.
The author gives hands on advice about the role humility plays in successful leadership. His key thesis is that the best leaders are those who serve others willingly and with humility, considering more of others than themselves allows.
John Dickson closes the book with suggestions on how leaders can develop humility. They include reflecting on the lives of the humble, conducting thought experiments to imagine humble solutions to ethical dilemmas, to act humbly, to invite criticism, and to recognize that you are not humble.
I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to read this book and to realize that humility is the secret to great leadership.
I plan to recommend it to others I know who are interested in improving not only their leadership skills but also their everyday lives and relationships.