The Quiet Power Of Humility

STUDENT NOTE: The following excerpts lead to the essay question at the end of this Pillar.

Humility plays a central role in every aspect of leadership. Humility as it relates to Tolerance was discussed in-depth in that Pillar. Here, we discuss the role humility plays in good Judgment, and in preventing bad Judgment.

In my last conversation with him before he died in 2015, Steve
Hayner, who was president of Columbia Theological Seminary, and an enormously influential figure in my life, put it well. “I believe in objective truth,” he told me, “but I hold lightly to our ability to perceive truth.”

What Steve meant by this, I think, is that the world is unfathomably complex. To believe we have mastered it in all respects — that our angle of Vision on matters like politics, philosophy, and theology is just right all the time — is ridiculous. This doesn’t mean one ought to live in a state of perpetual doubt and uncertainty. If we did, we could never speak up for justice and moral truth. It does mean, however, that we’re aware that what we know is, at best, incomplete.

Humility is a sign of self-confidence. It means we’re secure enough to alter our views based on new information and new circumstances. This would be a far more common occurrence for many of us if our goal was to achieve a greater understanding of truth rather than to confirm what we already believe — if we went into debates and decision making wanting to learn, rather than wanting to win.

Certitude can easily become an enemy of Tolerance but also of inquiry, since if you believe you have all the answers, there’s no point in searching out further information or making an effort to understand the values and assumptions of those with whom you disagree. It’s worth noting, too, that our checks-and-balances system of government assumes that none of us has all the answers and therefore no single person should be trusted with complete authority.

Humility believes there is such a thing as collective wisdom and that we’re better off if we have within our orbit people who see the world somewhat differently than we do. “As iron sharpens iron,” the book of Proverbs says, “so one person sharpens another.” But this requires us to actually engage with, and carefully listen to, people who understand things in ways dissimilar to how we do. It means we have to venture out of our philosophical and theological cul-de-sacs from time to time. It’s worth the effort. A friend of mine recently told me that humility — a virtue he would be the first to admit he recognized only later in life — is elusive, a perpetual goal, almost always a little bit out of reach. The wiser we become, the more we see how much we don’t know and how much we need others to help us know.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”