President's Column: Humility — The ultimate leadership trait?


The same commentators who badly misunderstood the American electorate have now scrambled to tell us the countless ways we are divided as a people. There is some truth in this, of course. We seek very different characteristics in our political leaders, with all of us understandably valuing some traits far more than others. But one polling result would yield 100 percent agreement: we do not associate humility with strong leadership, nor do we consider this virtue essential for highly effective leadership.

Strong, effective leaders are generally portrayed in the media as hard driving, authoritative, aggressive (or at least assertive) and supremely confident. Even today, signs of gentleness or vulnerability (for readers of my generation, cue Ed Muskie’s tears!) cause doubts about the leader’s resolve, sense of self and capacity to inspire others.

Yet as Alvernia emerges as a university increasingly known for its leadership programs, faculty and students alike are crafting an approach shaped by Franciscan values with a much-needed emphasis on ethics, informed by Catholic social thought. With emphasis on “real-world learning” experiences both on and beyond the campus — including projects that draw on the resources of our external communities — the O’Pake Institute for Ethics, Leadership, and Public Service is coordinating our efforts to prepare students at all levels with the skills, competencies and values that organizations seek in future employees. From our well-established Ph.D. program in Leadership Studies to our undergraduate co-curricular efforts to newer initiatives in the undergraduate and graduate curricula, Alvernia is delivering on the promise of our Mission Statement: to develop “ethical leaders with moral courage.”

And that promise includes understanding the central importance of humility in leadership.

All Alvernians can easily remember that service and peacemaking are among our core values. But we talk much less about our core value of “humility.” This is not surprising. Too often humility is trivialized by being equated with a lack of confidence or with merely a refusal to gloat when we are triumphant. Yet there are deeper lessons of humility when we fail or fall short or are proven wrong. And at a university filled with bright, articulate people, we are called to exercise humility in our daily lives. As we express our views, positive we are right, are we really listening and being open to the views of others? Are we ready to engage with those different from us in background, experience and points of views? Do we believe we can learn also from those beyond our campus, including those less formally educated?

We may be on to something important. Humility is gaining popularity far outside the boundaries of Mount Alvernia, not just as an important element of leadership, but as the key quality of leadership.

This may seem counterintuitive given our assumptions about CEOs or other prominent leaders. But according to recent research studies, it’s true. Jim Kouzes, who spoke in October to students and faculty on campus and to community leaders in downtown Reading, believes all effective leaders must have a profound sense of humility about their own skills and abilities.

Legendary leadership guru Jim Collins, goes a step further: he says the x-factor of great leadership is not personality. It’s humility. For him, Level 5 leaders are those who are humble with pronounced ambitions, not simply for themselves, but for the organization’s mission.

Many scholars believe humility in leadership is rooted in the principles of servant leadership, which one finds throughout the New Testament in the teachings (and behavior) of Christ. Secular and religious scholars alike cite other notable servant leaders, ranging from Buddha to Gandhi to Mother Teresa.

At Alvernia, we have countless examples and exemplars of humble, other-centered servant leadership. It is often evident in the the good work of alumni, like the leaders featured in this issue’s Top Cops article, charged with serving and protecting our cities and neighborhoods. Their thoughts about service reflect values that are modeled by Alvernia faculty and staff.

For almost three decades, Professor Polly Mathys has led the annual Turkey Drive, assisted only by an informal team of volunteers but supported by countless donors making contributions, large and small. Trustee Elsayed Elmarzouky and his family have closed their local restaurant for eight years in order to host the People First event. This year, with indispensable, behind-the-scenes (humble) assistance from the staff of our Holleran Center for Community Engagement, approximately 1,500 needy residents received a free meal.

The Holleran Center, along with the O’Pake Institute for Ethics, Leadership, and Public Service, has helped establish Alvernia as a model of servant-leadership not only in the state but across the country, as evidenced by the university’s several national awards. Undergraduates alone contribute more than 32,000 hours each year through our four University Days of Service and countless other activities, with 100 percent of our graduates participating. Small wonder 76 percent of our alumni report they are still active in community service.

The concept of servant-leadership also provides an invaluable lesson: leaders need not be in positions of high status; they can lead, sometimes quietly by humble example, from anywhere in an organization or a community. As I tell the extraordinarily diverse group of several dozen students whom Helen and I host each May at Cedar Hill at the Senior Leaders Dinner, leaders come in all shapes and sizes and styles. They need humility along with confidence, a drive to be excellent themselves matched by a commitment to bring out the best in others, a desire to be virtuous as well as successful, and a passion for service. Prepared in this way, they will join our thousands of alumni ready “To Do Well and To Do Good.”

Peace and all good,

Thomas F. Flynn