Humility as Virtue or Vice?

An earlier version of this essay was a Guest Commentary in the Asheville Citizen-Times on April 18, 2006.

At a 2006 town meeting sponsored by the World Affairs Council, North Carolina resident Harry Taylor told President Bush that a leader ought to have “a degree of humility.” He then asked the president to describe things he “maybe should have done differently,” specifically mentioning the telephone surveillance of citizens.

The President did not respond to the humility point, but he said, “I’m not going to apologize for what I did on the terrorist surveillance program. . .”

This exchange on CNN caused me to wonder what Americans think about humility. Do we see it as a virtue or a vice? Do we see it as a virtue for those in low-status positions, and a vice for those with high-status? How would Americans respond to a President who displayed humility?

In an earlier column I wrote that leader behaviors emerge from six personal qualities, one of which is humility. So I agree with Mr. Taylor, and I remind President Bush that, since Jesus is his role model, he might consider displaying more humility and less pride.

But the president won’t take my advice. Like many Americans he associates humility with weakness and pride with strength. These associations are at the heart of our confusion about the virtues we want in leaders.

Jesus was a model of humility, but Americans want proud leaders. We feel this way even though pride is the first of the seven deadly sins, and humility is the virtue against which it sins. We are confused about pride and humility because we have not resolved the contradiction between their philosophical and popular meanings.

Our dictionaries only feed the confusion. The dictionary’s second and third definitions of pride describe it as a desirable quality: “a reasonable or justifiable self-respect; delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship.” So we tell our children we are proud of them. And we want them to be proud of their accomplishments.

If pride is one of the seven deadly sins, however, shouldn’t we want our children to be humble in their accomplishments?

Apparently not. Dictionaries describe humility as an undesirable quality. One says humility is, “the state of being humble,” which is “marked by meekness or modesty in behavior.” A second meaning is, “showing deferential or submissive respect.” And a third is, “low in rank, quality, or station; unpretentious or lowly.” Another dictionary says humility is recognizing one’s limitations.

These definitions illustrate the popular notions of humility, but they fail to explain its virtue meaning. They suggest that humility is “not thinking you are good;” or, worse, “thinking you are not good.”

But neither idea points to the virtue of humility. If one is not good at something, it is not humble to recognize it. That is reality. And, if one is good at something but believes otherwise, that is false humility.

In order to understand the virtue of humility, we need to realize that it starts with knowing one is good. The virtue of humility can only be displayed by those with special talents.

Second, humble people realize others don’t care about their accomplishments. Therefore, they don’t brag or act proud.

Third, humble people are secure in their own talents, so they can recognize and shine a light on the talents of others.

And the last thing that makes humility a virtue is recognizing that, in the big scheme of things, one’s special talents and accomplishments mean very little. We all end up on the obituary page, even if we have written the great American novel, have become the heavyweight champion of the world, or can sing like Frank Sinatra. (For years I wanted Frank Sinatra’s talent. Since he died, I no longer want to be like him.)

So humility is a virtue when (1) we know we are good, (2) we realize others don’t care, (3) we recognize others’ talents, and (4) we know that, after we die, the world goes on.

Which quality do you want from your leaders – a sense of humility grounded in knowledge, talent and understanding, or a sense of pride that ignores fundamental truths? Do we follow humble or proud leaders? Each of us is responsible for that choice.

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