Since I wrote my column on hubris and nemesis (“The hubris-nemesis dynamic: all glory is fleeting”, Times, December 13, 2016), I‘ve been puzzling over how to navigate towards the subject of humility, the polar opposite of hubris.
Surely they have something in common, besides sharing the same first two letters “hu.” Just as important, I wanted to confirm my intuition that hubris and humility can coexist together, perhaps even help each other. I was uncomfortable with the fact that the Greek dynamic appeared to lead inevitably to comeuppance, even tragedy.
I am happy to report that my research has paid off in spades. The two oncepts have been seriously discussed together — in philosophy, politics, literature, business, and, surprise,surprise, sports.
The virtue of humility
Humility is so light a grace of character that it is sometimes overlooked that it is prized as a virtue in Christian thought.
US First Lady Michelle Obama learned this to her embarrassment when she was roundly criticized this December for her remarks in a TV interview with Oprah Winfrey. She declared that because of Donald Trump’s election, “we are feeling what not having hope feels like.”
This drew from pundit Cal Thomas strong words in criticism: “Michelle Obama’s hubris that only her husband could provide hope, may be why St. Paul cautioned: ‘Do not think more highly of yourself than you ought.’ (Romans 12:3). Pride is the first sin, which leads to all others.
“Anyone who puts faith in a politician to make his or her life better is worshipping a false god…”
Humility is the polar opposite of what Michelle Obama displayed in that interview.
The word humility signifies lowliness or submissiveness and it is derived from the Latin humilitas or, as St. Thomas says, from humus, i.e. the earth which is beneath us. Humility in a higher and ethical sense is that by which a man has a modest estimate of his own worth, and submits himself to others. According to this meaning no man can humiliate another, but only himself, and this he can do properly only when aided by Divine grace. This is what we mean when we speak of the virtue of humility.
The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and all other moral virtues are annexed to these either as integral, potential, or subjective parts. Humility is annexed to the virtue of temperance as a potential part, because temperance includes all those virtues that refrain or express the inordinate movements of our desires or appetites. Humility is a repressing or moderating virtue opposed to pride and vainglory or that spirit within us which urges us to great things above our strength and ability.
The traits of leaders
When we think of traits leaders typically exhibit, many come to mind—including strength, charisma, enthusiasm, and vision. One important component is often overlooked: humility.
“For so long, we’ve talked about the power of persuasion and the over-the-top self-confidence of leaders, which is a very top-down style of leadership,” says leadership expert Rob Nielsen, co-author of Leading with Humility.
Research in the Administrative Science Quarterly found that managers who exhibit traits of humility—such as seeking feedback and focusing on the needs of others—resulted in better employee engagement and job performance.
Between hubris and humility
My happiest discovery in my research was an essay that comes from of all places, the world of sports.
The essay, entitled “The Sweet Spot Between Hubris and Humility,” was published by Psychology Today. It was written by Christopher Bergland, an endurance athlete.
Bergland contends that greatness lies in balancing self-belief (hubris) with egolessness (humility).
He wrote: “There is a sweet spot between hubris and humility that is the key to greatness.
“Successful people blend ambition and confidence with conscientiousness and compassion.”
“Believing that you possess both the power of Atlas and are as insignificant as an ant is a difficult paradox for the human ego to navigate, but it is the key to being extraordinary.”
He criticizes Lance Armstrong for his win-at-all-cost philosophy. “Athletes are too busy cultivating the aura of invincibility to admit to being fearful, weak, defenseless, vulnerable, or fallible, and for that reason neither are they especially kind, considerate, merciful, or benign, lenient, or forgiving. To themselves or anyone around them.” I couldn’t disagree with Armstrong more. The priority of sports and being an athlete in our society should be about fostering character, resilience, empathy, and camaraderie—with a healthy dose of humility. Good sportsmanship is not about hubris and winning at all costs.”
Bergland’s core philosophy in his program, The Athlete’s Way, is to: aim high, work hard, have fun, play fair, and to trust yourself.
Some of his quotations are priceless.
He quotes, for one, Abraham Lincoln on the eve of his “Declaration of Emancipation,” which Bergland believes captures the delicate balance of strong self-belief against a backdrop of humility. Lincoln said in 1863,
“I know very well that many others might, in this matter, as in others, do better than I can; and though I believe that I have not so much of the confidence of the people as I had some times since, I do not know that, all things considered, any other person has more; and, however this may be, there is no way in which I can have any other man put where I am. I am here. I must do the best I can and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take.”
Finally, he quotes President Obama: “Let me suggest that those of us with the most power and influence need to be the most humble…the one thing about being president is after four years, you get pretty humble. You think maybe you wouldn’t but you become more humble.”
A dose of humor and humiliation
At the end of his wonderful essay, Bergland adds a third ingredient to his mix, “ humor,” another “hu” word.
“The trick,” he writes, “is to find the perfect blend of hubris, humility and a sense of humor while striving for greatness.”
If the individual cannot find the right blend, he could wind up reaping “humiliation.”