On humility

For many years I have believed that Carl Jung once said or wrote that “you must stoop to drink from the river of life.”

But google has taught me humility, or perhaps I simply do not have the energy after a long week at work, which taught me humility, to hunt my quarry quote with true literary scholarship. I get nothing when I type these words into a google search.

Humility is one of the Christian virtues, which might make a reader sceptical if he/she were steeped in Nietzsche or Machiavelli. Is it just the philosophy of slaves or the rationalisation of those on whom fortuna does not smile?

But Machiavelli practised a kind of intellectual humility. When after he had been humiliated, tortured and dismissed from his public office, as perhaps the most (posthumously) famous bureaucrat of all time, and sent into a kind of internal exile, from which he would never return,  he turned to the humble craft of writing, and produced the insightful, yet puzzling tract on politics and power, The Prince.  He introduces this enduring enigma – is it an imaginative response to the trauma of his torture and downfall? – from the viewpoint that the humble may not inherit the earth, but they can observe the battlefield of power as well as its princes:

Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that if princes it needs to be of the people. Machiavelli, “Dedication”, The Prince

I wonder too what the poet-philosopher-philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche would make of today’s new aspirants to be Übermensch, the vast cult of Leadership in organisations. Everyone in today’s organisations, even in the bureaucratic ones that I wander through like a reviled exile, wants to be a Leader. Leadership appears in almost every job description, and is most often interpreted as managing up, a kind of impression management to appear always in control, and always in conformity with the wishes of your masters.  In the vast literature on Leadership, humility struggles to be authentically expressed, and appears to be little more than a sort of understated modesty that is happy to share the limelight with other members of the club. So here in a randomly selected article on the eleven characteristics of great leadership, humility appears with false modesty:

Humility: There’s nothing wrong with accepting praise for accomplishments so long as there’s as much willingness to accept criticism, to declare weaknesses, to seek opportunities for personal development, and to value others as much as oneself. That, in essence, is balanced humility.

If we set aside the modern pseudo-secular celebration of Leadership, as a symptom of a culture in ruins, and return instead to older, longer and deeper traditions, we can practise humility as one of the ordinary virtues.

Ordinary virtues were described by Tzetvan Todorov in his accounts of responses to the degradation and inhumanity of the German concentration camps. He contrasted ordinary virtues that, in these circumstances, allowed some to endure the unconscionable. In those destitute times, the celebrated heroic virtues of defiance, bravery, combat and self-sacrifice – or we might say Leadership – would have led to compromise or death, the ordinary virtues reasserted in the worst conditions simple, small actions of daily life. Todorov identified three cardinal ordinary virtues: dignity, caring and the life of the mind.

Todorov’s work assumed humility, since the virtues are practised by those who suffer the regime, not those who administer it. But leading the life I do, I must speak up for and live out the practice of humility in the outer halls of power.

I remember in my early years as a public servant seeing this ordinary virtue practised by the then head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria, Peter Kirby. It was a more formal era prior to email and ubiquitous texting. Mr Kirby would give instructions to his direct reports through a neatly written sentence fitted into the margins of letters and briefs, and would always begin them Mr or Ms Surname: Mr Moran, please advise.  But the humility he practise, which is spoken of if not demonstrated in the obituary I have linked above,  was shown in another memory I have.

It seemed that he would lunch several days a week with a relatively low status person within the Department, Fred Warmbrand, in a modest cafe restaurant where all could see him. Just what was the purpose of these lunches – whether they were acts of friendship or ways to feel the pulse – I never really knew.  But I always remember this way of dwelling with the ordinary and the humble, even when he occupied one of the most powerful positions in the state. I rarely if ever saw his successors do the same.

Humility, and endurance of difficult experiences, are qualities I admire in my heroes. For me Vaclav Havel‘s story – stripped of status and imprisoned, yet sustaining faith in simple virtues that would become the foundation of a new state – is the embodiment of the ordinary virtues.  If we could bring down our modern courtiers, and restore public institutions, like those led not so long ago by Peter Kirby, where compassion, dignity, the life of the mind and humility prevailed as the ethos, we would not reach nirvana, but we would have restored some rare and precious things.

It is heartening that there is at least one project out there, the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut that appears to be attempting the same thing.

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5 thoughts on “On humility

  1. i have been asked a few times in my life to be a leader, to rise to a managerial position & i have refused them every time. i could never & still cannot ask another person to do something for me because my position is above theirs. i simply cannot. i don’t know if this is humility or humbling. But i am not in agreement that leadership qualities should be given so much primacy in the world of work, there is something endearing to me about those people who can just receive orders & just do a job, to just be a cog. The irony is, i don’t like telling & i don’t like being told, good job i opened my own business or i’d be unemployable. But i really, always wanted to be on of those who just took orders, happily & followed. There needs to be those people & the reason why people don’t want to be like that, is because we have belittled it, when in fact, it shouldn’t be an embarrassing or vitiated position in society.

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    1. I have both craved and shunned leadership roles, and managed teams quite a bit. Just recently I missed out on a leadership job, and was told I gave off an aura of just wanting to do the work and not be fussed with “managing up.” It was what I call courtiership – always playing court to your superiors and patrons – that wa really valued, not guiding, directing, coaching those who work for you. And it is kind of true – I do prefer to write and do, rather than play office politics. But it was also disappointing since it told me that depth of expertise, authentic craft and true humility are not wanted in the leadership roles of the organisation in which I have spent most of my adult life. I think that is a deep loss, and to want a different kind of leadership should not require belittling those who do not lead.

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      1. i think were on the same page Jeff. Do you find when, or even considering the act of “guiding, directing, coaching” that you question the hierarchy of yourself to people & realize that you may not have the answers, or may that leaders don’ necessarily know the best thing to do, it is simply that they are able to do it? i think i’ve put that really awkwardly, i know what i want to say, but never having said it before, i don’t quite know the exact way to put it.

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      2. Yes I do. I think we reflective types also can readily see so many possible responses to any situation, and when the call is for action those who quickly seize on a way to do things, without doubt or much thought, come to the fore.

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      3. i suppose a clear line of thought, a one track mind, determined on a specific task is better suited. It isn’t day dreaming that stops the action, it is an absence of an ego personality driving me.

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