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This week’s originally-planned blog, about how to define leadership, was written and ready to submit. I was excited to publish it, but have shelved it for later. Here’s why. Last Sunday morning I got up and attended our church’s Palm Sunday service. In his sermon, the pastor discussed the humility Jesus Christ demonstrated during the last week of his life. It struck a chord, and I knew then a new blog was in order. 

To me, humility is one of the most important, but least recognized attributes of a leader. It takes humility to be a servant-leader, and I believe leading is all about serving others—subordinates, superiors, peers, stakeholders; family and friends. So, in recognition of Holy Week, and the example set by Jesus, I’m motivated to write a new blog. This entry explores how Jesus taught us—over 2,000 years ago—how to be humble both then and today.  

A Humble Leader
In the Christian tradition, Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, the day Jesus entered Jerusalem, where he knew he would be betrayed and crucified within the week. Accompanied by his 12 disciples, he rode into the city on a young donkey, met by throngs of people excitedly waving palm fronds and laying them down in his path. In Biblical times, the palm branch was a sign of victory, peace, and eternal life.  

The people had listened to Jesus teach and witnessed the miracles he performed. They wanted to crown Jesus king of Israel. But such was not his intention. Jesus rode into the city not on a horse, as a king would do, but on a donkey, in an astonishing display of humility. He wanted to show the people there was another way to lead: to lead with humility as a servant leader demonstrating love.

Sadly, both then and today, humility is sometimes seen as weakness. People want a leader who will “fight” for them, who will defeat their enemies, who won’t compromise. Jesus was challenged in his last week of life to prove he was the Messiah by showing the outward strength, force, and defiance expected of such a leader. But Jesus chose to demonstrate love instead.

An Expression of Love
Just a few days after entering Jerusalem, on what we now know as Maundy Thursday, Jesus and his 12 disciples participated together in the Last Supper in observation of Passover. During this meal, Jesus took a basin of water with a towel, and washed the feet of each disciple, a demonstration of his love for them.  

The word maundy is derived from the Latin word mandatum, which means command. While washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus commanded them to likewise love and serve others and stated, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” – John 13:34.

Lessons in Humility
The next day, now somberly observed as Good Friday, Jesus was humiliated, tortured, crucified, and buried in a tomb. On the cross, he asked God to forgive his persecutors. Christians believe Jesus rose three days later, on what is now joyously celebrated as Easter Sunday, and ascended into Heaven. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, the Biblical account of Jesus’s last week leaves us with two powerful lessons in humility that translate from then to now and show us how to become better leaders: 

  1. How you enter a room: Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a horse, humbling himself before the cheering crowds. Leaders today can follow the model Jesus set by entering a room, or joining a virtual call with humility. In the armed forces, when a senior leader enters a room, everyone stands. That leader can change the tone and demonstrate humility by respectfully acknowledging the efforts of those who are presenting. Listen carefully, and let subordinates speak. Don’t interrupt. Ensure every voice is heard—call on those who may be reluctant to raise their hands; sometimes those are the people who make the most valuable contributions. Finally, follow through on any promises or action items derived from the meeting.
  2. How you serve others: Jesus demonstrated love toward everyone, even those who we might not think deserved it. Jesus even washed the feet of the disciple Judas Iscariot, who would betray Jesus that same evening as he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Today, leaders can follow Jesus’ example of serving and loving others by reaching out to understand their people, even those who aren’t top performers. They should attempt to discover what each person needs, what motivates them, and then provide the tools, resources, and support needed to get the job done. 

Look in the mirror: Developing a spirit of humility is a very personal journey. The above thoughts are designed to stimulate introspection. How can you apply servant leadership to strengthen workplace climate, help each individual achieve their full potential, and enhance mission accomplishment? 

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character. 

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