Humility has a bad reputation in today’s society. It has associations with timidity, lack of confidence, weakness. Who needs that? But if you will stop to consider more deeply, you will realise that humility has nothing to do with weakness and everything to do with wisdom.
Humility is not ‘believing oneself to be less important than others’. Humility is knowing that however good, talented, wise or rich we are, it does not make us more important than anyone else. And if we are not those things it does not make us any less important.
The Buddhists believe that the chance of being born in human form is like surfacing on a vast ocean and one’s head finding the centre of the only life belt floating on the surface. Therefore each human life is equally rare, equally precious and equally deserving of respect.
But if this is not enough reason for us, we can think of all the times our judgment about a person was wrong. We can think of that person we disregarded until we found out he spoke 7 languages, or was a black belt in karate, or worked 5 years in Africa as a volunteer. Everyone we meet is better than us in some way, even if only in their humility.
Humility is also one of the qualities of a special kind of leader. Think of the great men or women you admire and the chances are they possess the quality of humility as I describe it here. Take my favourite actor, Tom Hanks for example. Listening to him talking about the making of a film, you might be listening to the neighbour talking about coaching a kid’s baseball team. In fact, the neighbour would probably sound more like he was starring in a big-budget film.
Competence, confidence, and strength do not preclude humility. They are enhanced by it. We are attracted to capable leaders who, instead of taking all the credit, are self-effacing and rightly point to all the people who contributed to the success. We follow them willingly; we outdo ourselves for them willingly. This is aptly described in the Tao Te Ching (translation by Lin Yutang):
Therefore in order to be the chief among the people,
One must speak like their inferiors.
In order to be foremost among the people,
One must walk behind them.
Thus it is that the Sage stays above,
And the people do not feel his weight;
Walks in front,
And the people do not wish him harm.
Then the people of the world are glad to uphold him forever.
Because he does not contend,
No one in the world can contend against him.
More to come in part 2.