Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership Book Review

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John Dickson, in his book Humilitas, attempts to show how the virtue of humility can make any leader great, but he cautions the reader, “as soon as you think you have it, you probably do not.”[1] This paradox is the springboard to Dickson’s love-hate relationship with humility, yet the longer he contemplated humility, the more he came to love this virtue for both its aesthetic qualities and its practical benefits.[2] His goal is to show how humility demonstrates one’s inherent worth, while also seeking to better the lives of those around the individual. Dickson’s academic background is in the field of ancient history, so he uses this knowledge to analyze events and leaders from the past to ultimately learn from them, which he states, “is the ultimate exercise in democracy.”[3] His entire thesis is based on the assumption that the most influential and inspiring people are also those marked by humility. Having previously read Good to Great, by Jim Collins, this writer can attest to Collins’ level 5 leaders possessing the attributes of determination and an attitude of humility.[4] The definition Dickson assigns to humility is, “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself, [which is] a willingness to hold power in service of others.”[5] On the basis of this definition, Dickson asserts true humility assumes the dignity or strength of the one possessing the virtue. He then contrasts humility with humiliation, showing humility is willing, social, and a choice one makes for the sake of others, while humiliation is cast upon individuals.

Next, Dickson applies humility in the context of leadership by showing how humility is persuasive. He parallels how leadership and humility are all about others as leadership is essentially the art of inspiring others to contribute their best effort towards a common goal.[6] Leadership motivates, inspires, and at its core, Dickson believes that it is being able to cope with change, since change is inevitable, but growth is optional. Good leaders must possess ability, authority, persuasion, positive example, and sound character ethics, because these traits bring out the best in other people. Dickson then shows how leadership is fundamentally relational, so possessing these traits, as well as effective communication and building trust are essential. In the end, Dickson concludes humility is the key ingredient to enriching a leader’s effectiveness.[7]

In order to possess humility, Dickson offers six exercises to reflect on: (1) we are shaped by what we love; (2) we should reflect on the lives of the humble; (3) we should conduct thought experiments to enhance humility; (4) we should act humbly; (5) we should invite criticism; and (6) we should forget about being humble.[8] A truly humble person is never concerned about appearing humble, so in one’s pursuit of humility, Dickson illustrates the first step in the pursuit of humility is to recognize we are not humble by nature.

Critique

Overall, Dickson makes a solid attempt of defining humility and arguing why it is an important virtue to possess. Due to our nature, we are attracted to the good and repelled by the bad, so Dickson is correct in his conclusion that, “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.”[9] Despite the truth of this statement, the majority of society strives to succeed by any means necessary. While most may be repelled by pride, their inherent nature is rooted in their selfishness and pride.

Dickson’s use of prominent members of society was a great addition to this work, but some of his errors and omissions left one to question some of his other data and reasoning for including them.[10] Despite that, Dickson did include many great examples such as Albert Einstein, not known for being a religious believer nor an atheist, so this writer found his statement during a lecture in Vienna in 1921 to be most fascinating: “I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. My God created laws that take care of that. His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking, but by immutable laws.”[11] Einstein’s understanding of the harmony of God’s created nature humbled him. Dickson makes a very logical argument how, “the mysterious harmony of the laws of nature should lead thinking people – whether believer or otherwise – to an attitude not far off humility.”[12] He then demonstrates how humility involves both a sense of finitude and a sense of inherent dignity, which led to his conclusion that, “there is a certain logic to keeping pride in check and conducting ourselves, regardless of our various competencies, with humility towards others.”[13] Essentially, this means we will always trust the humble person more than we trust the proud to act in our best interest. Dickson also displays a comprehensive understanding of the importance of knowing the difference between society’s key axis points of: good vs. evil, honor vs. shame, pleasure vs. suffering, and prosperity vs. poverty. He rightly demonstrates how western-history is shaped by the event of Jesus’ crucifixion, which was regarded as the most shameful and most brutal form of capital punishment.[14] This humility revolution, caused by Christ’s crucifixion, led the Apostle Paul to write, “In humility, consider others better than yourselves… Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ.”[15]

Overall, Dickson does a good job illustrating how humility keeps pride from rising up, why we are attracted more to those who are humble, how Jesus – the model of humility-caused a revolution, how humility is an inspiration to those around us, and even how humility allows us to respect someone with conflicting beliefs. What this writer has a hard time agreeing with Dickson on is the subject of tolerance, which he says is, “often the answer to the harmful effects of absolute truth claims.”[16] This writer agrees with Dickson regarding the importance of learning to respect even those with whom we disagree with, as this posture allows one to move past mere tolerance to humility, which is the key to harmony at the social level.[17] What does not track biblically is softening one’s convictions or relaxing claims to knowledge and truth. If something goes against the very nature of God, to do anything less than reject it would mean sin. Dickson claims tolerance means agreeing that all viewpoints are equally true or valid.[18] While perception is reality to each individual, that does not mean one’s convictions should be toned down or made to be more tolerant. While Dickson may be right stating the basic human values that unite us are stronger than the forces that pull us apart, his reasoning is problematic and illogical. There is a fine line between conviction and compassion and while an open mind is good, G. K. Chesterton best illustrates, “an open mind is like an open mouth: its purpose is to bite on something nourishing. Otherwise, it becomes like a sewer, accepting everything, rejecting nothing.”[19]

Evaluation

Humilitas is a great resource for anyone wanting to become a better leader. It would have had a much greater impact on those in pastoral ministry if there were more than one chapter dedicated to Christianity, more specifically Jesus and how He embodied the virtue of humility. Jesus in the parable of the wedding feast says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”[20] This would have been a great place for Dickson to speak on what God is and is not impressed with. Throughout Humilitas, humility is framed in view of society and culture, but nowhere does it trace humility back to its source. Being Christ-like means reflecting the image of Christ and humility was a huge part of what He did and why He did it. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus again says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”[21] This would have been a great place for Dickson to speak on the motives behind one’s actions, as this story represents someone who claims superior status for himself, while the other comes to God in humility and receives compassion and restoration. From Proverbs, we learn, “The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor; and the reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.”[22] Zephaniah 2:3 instructs to, “seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do His just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD.” Paul instructs the Philippians to, “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”[23] Colossians calls for voluntary humility and cautions against false humility. Achieving humility is a constant endeavor, just as one’s walk with Christ is, each with infinite rewards, both temporal and eternal.

Bibliography

Dickson, John. Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

[1] John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 11.

[2] Dickson, Humilitas, 14.

[3] Ibid., 17-18.

[4] Ibid., 20.

[5] Ibid., 24.

[6] Dickson, Humilitas, 33.

[7] Ibid., 47.

[8] Ibid., 174-182.

[9] Ibid., 69.

[10] Aristotle 3rd vs. 4th Century BC? (p. 87 & 41); Opinionated views of Americans from an Australian

[11] Dickson, Humilitas, 61.

[12] Ibid., 61.

[13] Ibid., 66.

[14] Ibid., 105 & 109.

[15] Philippians 2:3-4

[16] Dickson, Humilitas, 164.

[17] Ibid., 170.

[18] Ibid., 164.

[19] Ibid., 170.

[20] Luke 14:11 (ESV)

[21] Luke 18:14 (ESV)

[22] Proverbs 15:33 & Proverbs 22:4 (ESV)

[23] Philippians 2:3 (ESV)

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