Humility isn’t proclaimed; it is recognized. But, all too often, humility feels like an endangered trait. It is virtually a mantra, a ubiquitous call for leaders to be both powerful and humble. Despite the nearly oxymoronic nature of the phrase “humble leader,” we still believe that such humility is possible. And in the search for humble leaders — or for humility itself — one must wonder: Is humility an innate phenomenon that one carries all of one’s days? Or can it be taught and learned?
Perhaps the challenge lies in the paradigm of leadership. Those who want to lead will generally believe that they have something to give, and that their voice matters, often more than other voices. Why else would they step forward? Placing themselves somewhere on the spectrum between pure altruism and pure ego, leaders need motivation and incentive to step up. How then, can they do so without leaving everyone else behind?
After 30 years of working with leaders in the Jewish community, I have learned that two practices are necessary for humility to take root and be sustained. These are not theories or precepts, but rather behaviors that necessitate daily engagement:
Be wowed by this wondrous world. As part of a training, we often take emerging leaders outdoors and ask them to write a blessing about something they have never noticed so clearly before. We are inviting them to wondrously see the world. Can they soften their gaze enough and can they use their peripheral vision enough to notice the majesty?
Know that it’s not about you. We teach this to every leader and facilitator we train. What is happening in the room, the progress made — personal and communal — is not about you, despite your powerful position. Though you may have catalyzed powerful developments in the room, you are not the subject. If you stop making the experience self-referential, you can “right-size” yourself.
As they embrace these two practices, people readjust their perspective and become better leaders (and people). If you don’t practice these behaviors daily — even occasionally — humility will remain out of reach. While leaders without humility manage to achieve a significant transformation, their deeper impulses ultimately diminish their role and leave many of us feeling small and alone in their wake.
The greatest leaders I have known acknowledge those around them (including their students) as masters and wondrous beings, rather than as people who have come to imbibe ideas from a teacher. Rather than positioning their role as transactional — here is what I do for you and here is what you do for me — they are relational: Here is who we are to each other.
Can humility be taught? Can one teach others so that their voice, wisdom, vision, and passion are valued, while also teaching that their ideas, perspectives, and experiences are no more important than those of others? Can one teach a person to regard the world with wonder?
I do not think we can teach this to everyone. Even those with humble propensities must remember humility as a daily spiritual and practical endeavor. In addition, as one rises on the leadership ladder, the more challenging humility becomes: The leader should recede more to make room for others, and yet that self-knowledge and practice become more difficult when power separates the leader from others. Some people, even with the best of intentions, will never get it.
Before my children came into the world, I would add a fast to my Yom Kippur observance — a speech fast. By refraining from speaking for 25 hours, I always found myself at the end of the day to be more right-sized, more appreciative, and more in awe of my privilege.
We need leaders who know not only how to speak from the mountaintop, but also how to watch and to keep silent from within the crowd. As Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook taught, there is a reason why the first prayer of the day — (“Modeh/Modah ani”) — “Grateful am I” — begins with gratitude before the “I” enters the picture. First “Grateful,” then “I.” In our search for humble leaders, we should be looking for a shared journey more wondrous than the journey of the individual.
Yonatan Gordis is a partner at ChangeCraft, a consulting firm specializing in change processes in the philanthropic and nonprofit fields. A member of the Sh’ma Now Board of Directors, he offers his deep appreciation to Rabbi Haim Casas, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, and Anne Gorsuch for their humble reflections on humility.