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     PROVERBS ON HUMILITY AND PRIDE

     The passages below are taken from Michael A Zigarelli’s book “Management by Proverbs,” published in 1999 by Moody Press.

 

     Bill Foote stood before an audience of 150 managers to deliver his first speech since becoming the chief executive officer of USG Corporation, a building products manufacturer in Chicago. But as he began, it quickly became apparent that this would be anything but the prototypical “here’s-my-vision” talk.

     The CEO opened by conveying a traumatic and intensely personal story. Eighteen months earlier, he had learned that his wife, Andrea, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The Footes, parents of three young girls, courageously waged an all-out battle with the disease; but one month before Bill was named CEO, Andrea died. She was only forty-two years old.

     Now shouldering the new roles of widower, single parent, and chief executive, Bill Foote elected to stand before his management team emotionally exposed. He spoke from his heart.

     This unusual step of publicly sharing his struggles quieted the room. “You could have heard a pin drop,” said one manager. Veteran managers were wiping tears away.

     The upshot of Bill’s candor was equally unusual. The Wall Street Journal later reported that: “As managers talked afterwards, . . . the clear message was ‘If we have to go through a few walls for this guy, we’re going to do it.’” Additionally, Bill’s willingness to demonstrate his own vulnerability and humanity reverberated throughout the organization. The company showed a renewed attentiveness to family issues and, more generally, a broader sensitivity to employee needs. For instance, when executives decided to close a Virginia plant the year after Bill’s speech, workers got two and one-half years notice and ample out- placement help.

     “By all accounts,” concluded the Journal, “both Mr. Foote’s leadership and the corporate culture at USG.. . emerged stronger.”1

 

HOW TO RECOGNIZE HUMILITY

    Humility manifests itself in several ways, as does its opposite, pride. And as poignantly illustrated by Bill Foote, one manifestation of a humble attitude is the willingness to lay bare one’s afflictions, vulnerabilities, and insecurities---a willingness to share with others that one has the same human frailties that they have. In some of its other forms, humility can surface as a disposition to serve others first, as a candor about one’s shortcomings, or as an inclination to welcome advice (Principle 11).

     In the context of the workplace, “managerial humility” can be defined as an attitude that, notwithstanding the imparity with subordinates in title, authority, education, skill, or paycheck, there really is no difference at the most basic level of one’s existence. That is, for the Christian manager, genuine humility means renouncing the man-made status distinctions between persons, in favor of God’s more egalitarian model.

     No doubt, this mind-set is unnatural to a sinful mankind permeated with pride. And it’s certainly uncommon in bureaucratic organizations, where hierarchical structure accentuates and institutionalizes such status distinctions. For those who strive to be more humble as managers and those who would consider such a change, the Scriptures offer guidance. Indeed, humility is one of the most widely addressed topics in Proverbs and in Scripture generally.

 

PROVERBS ON HUMILITY

     Among the many proverbs that speak to the issue of humility, perhaps the most eloquent is one in which the word “humility” never appears:

Rich and poor have this in common:

The Lord is Maker of them all. (Proverbs 22:2 NIV)

 

No Distinctions Before God

     Indeed, we all know that. God created everyone and everything. This is as basic as theology gets.

     But, for some reason, the knowledge of this fundamental truth that we’re all children of the same Father---all loved by Him, all valuable in His eyes---does not always migrate from one’s head to one’s heart. Instead, Christians, like others, tend to mentally adhere to distinctions and pecking orders that are abhorrent to a God who challenges us to see people as He sees them.

     Proverbs 22:2 is an important reminder that the cornerstone of managing people in humility is to recognize that those under us at work in fact stand next to us, where it really matters, before the Creator. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul picks up this theme often. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3 NIV), he told Christians in Rome. This implies that God calls Christian managers to reject outright the elevated standing conferred on them at the managerial level. Instead, as a Christian manager, each of us should, “in humility, consider others better than yourself” (Philippians 2:3 NIV).

 

Humility vs. Pride: Two Distinct Paths

     Beyond the basic admonition, though, Proverbs also offers us consequences, foretelling the likely result of both a humble attitude and its antithesis, a proud spirit. Consider this small but representative sampling of its instruction:

When pride comes, then comes disgrace,

but with humility comes wisdom. (Proverbs 11:2 NIV)

 

Pride goes before destruction,

a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18 NIV)

 

Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud,

but humility comes before honor. (Proverbs 18:12 NIV)

 

Humility and fear of the Lord bring

wealth and honor and life. (Proverbs 22:4 NIV)

 

     The two paths and their destinations are distinct. Humility is a precursor to wisdom, honor, wealth, and a God-honoring life, whereas pride precipitates disgrace, destruction, and one’s downfall. Many may already sense pride’s outcome, since most of us have made these sorts of missteps and experienced pride’s troubling results. However, the outcomes of humility are less obvious and warrant some closer inspection, particularly in a managerial context.

 

HUMILITY AND PRIDE IN EMPLOYEE MANAGEMENT

     On a practical level, the ramifications of adopting an attitude of humility touch almost every aspect of employee management. From staffing to performance management to the severing of the employment relation, one’s ability to make Christlike decisions is largely a function of one’s willingness to adopt the role of servant and put others’ needs ahead of one’s own. By contrast, decisions that are fueled by one’s pride tend to be decisions that are displeasing to God and not beneficial to employees.

     In addition, our attitudes as managers in reaching decisions can affect our efficiency and productivity in our unit, and prideful attitudes can invade most areas of management. Table 1 provides a cross section of the manifestations of a prideful versus a humble attitude.

                  

                   Table 1

     PRIDE VERSUS HUMILITY IN EMPLOYEE MANAGEMENT

Issue

Prideful Attitude

Humble Attitude

Interviewing Applicants

 

I can ascertain what I need to know about people from speaking to them.

 

A second opinion and maybe an employment test would be helpful.

 

Employee Career Development

 

That’s the employee’s job, not mine,

 

I have a responsibility to make this a priority.

 

Soliciting Employee Ideas

 

I know more than they do. Meritorious ideas from below make me look less valuable.

 

I can learn from the people on the front lines. This organization can benefit from their perspectives.

 

Relieving Employee Stress

 

I’ve got enough to do without worrying about their stress level.

 

It’s part of my job to improve quality of work life.

 

Employee Family Obligations

 

If I accommodate this request, I’ll have to accommodate every other employee as well.

 

Who am I to undermine their families?

 

Dealing with Under-performers

 

Improve or we’ll have to take some other action.

 

Has management contributed to the under-performance? Regardless, can I do something to help this person improve?

 

Conflict Resolution

 

I’m the sole and final arbiter of conflicts. This maintains control and consistency.

 

I may overlook something or have a latent bias, so there needs to be an objective system in place to safeguard due process.

 

Overall

 

I’m the boss.

 

God’s the Boss.

 

 

     These prideful responses may seem harsh, yet at times we all tend toward them on one or more of these issues. In contrast, consider the tone behind the humble response. It should be clear that humility can lead to things like honor, wealth, wisdom, and a vibrant spiritual life. The manager who humbly meets employee needs in such realms as career development, participation, job satisfaction, family time, training, and due process will be highly revered, perhaps “honored” above other managers in the organization. Moreover, as we will see throughout this book, empirical and anecdotal evidence indicate that displaying a humble attitude leads to greater employee commitment, productivity, and retention, as well as better quality and organizational performance. Stated differently, humility can lead to “wealth” through these mediating variables.

            It also can lead to wisdom, for the willingness to learn from others and bring others into the decision-making process (as with interviewing applicants, to cite one of many possible examples) can advance one’s knowledge and insight. This linkage between humility and wisdom is highlighted in Principle 11, valuing employee input (by both soliciting employee ideas and taking advice; see pages 162—167).

     Overall, having the humility to defer to God as the head of the organization and to acknowledge that He knows better than we what’s best for our organization, brings “life” to our relationship with Him. To recapitulate a point from Principle 1, all else flows from devoting one’s work to the One who created work.

     Indeed, as Proverbs 22:4 teaches, “Humility and the fear of the Lord bring wealth and honor and life.”

 

EMBRACING HUMILITY

     Few attitudes are further removed from Christ’s model than an inflated sense of one’s own importance or stature. Christ is the very embodiment of humility, for He “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” He was God, but for our sins “he humbled himself and became obedient to death---even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7—8 NIV). Our task, Paul wrote, is to emulate this example: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5 NIV).

     In our workplace fiefdoms, then, whether it be atop a multibillion-dollar company like USG Corp. or leading an eight-member team in a work unit, Christian managers through word and deed are called to bear witness to the humility of Christ. This entails a willingness to serve rather than to be served (Matthew 20:28 NIV), a contentment in being second rather than first, a greater propensity to listen than desire to be heard, and a teachability that permits us to learn from those around us.

Furthermore, embracing humility in one’s career is to view ourselves quite differently---“with sober judgment” as Paul put it in Romans 12:3. It is to see one’s good works as works of God, one’s accomplishments as really His accomplishments, one’s talents as His gifts, and one’s good fortune as His providence.

     In total, a humble manager can see himself (herself) and others from God’s perspective, not man’s. As humble managers, we can see more clearly our relative smallness, despite whatever power or position God has granted us. We are less likely to think too much of ourselves, to allow our innate pride to subvert God’s plan for our work.

     Lastly, in managing our people, seeing through God’s eyes inhibits us from drifting toward thinking autocratically (with all of its harmful consequences). Instead, we recognize that despite any educational or experiential advantage we have on those under us, we are, in fact, not superior to them where it matters most: before God. “The Lord,” the proverb reminds us, “is Maker of them all.” (59-67)

 

NOTE

1. Sue Shellenbarger, “A CEO Opens Up About Loss and Finds He’s a Stronger Boss,” The Wall Street Journal, 10 September 1997, B1

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