01 Sep 2019

Visitation of St Mary MacKillop Rockdale City, St Gabriel Bexley and St Francis Xavier Arncliffe

St. Joseph’s Church, Rockdale

What’s the best kind of leader? Plato in his Republic famously said it was a person with vision and principle who didn’t want to be leader and thus a philosopher-king would be best. Many contemporary commentators, though less inclined to philosophers or kings, join Plato in putting humility high on the list of important qualities of a leader.[1] It’s not what you think of when you think of political leaders like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, or business leaders like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, but it’s certainly something for which Abraham Lincoln, Pope Francis or former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, who was buried this week, are honoured.

Why are humble leaders often the most effective? Well, studies suggest they listen more effectively, inspire teamwork and focus everyone on organizational goals rather than themselves. Humble leaders are often best at soliciting feedback, respecting differences of opinion, crediting others, and focusing employee needs. They know themselves, admit their mistakes, accept constructive feedback and take responsibility. And in this era of celebrity culture, of narcissistic personalities, of a high rewards, highly competitive kill-or-get-killed CEO culture, many commentators have noticed a humility deficit that is costing us in quality leaders. If it’s not philosopher-kings we need, what is it?

In our Old Testament reading this morning Ben Sirach advises his son to be modest in his business and reflective in his practice: “The greater you are, the more humbly you should behave.” (Sir 3:17-29). Then in our Gospel Jesus counsels avoiding the seats of honour and posh guest-lists at parties, recommending humility to the leading Pharisees (Lk 14:1,7-14). But what is this humility acknowledged even by the secular world and praised by our readings today?

Some think humility is bowing and scraping like Dickens’ Uriah Heep, hoping people will notice just how humble you are and promote you from economy class to business. But Jesus hated sham, exposed illusions, unmasked hypocrisy. As St Francis de Sales said: ‘True humility never pretends to be humble.’

So, if it’s not about pretence, is humility about genuinely regarding ourselves poorly, a spirituality of self-loathing? Not according to the best of Christian tradition. St Thomas Aquinas taught that humility is about knowing ourselves for what we are, and in relation to God and others; it means self-estimation according to truth. Talk to fathers about their awe before a newborn baby who came from them but whom they know could not come from them. We cannot be engulfed by the majesty of God, the beauty of creation or the wonder of human beings and at the same time coddle the illusion of our own superiority and self-sufficiency; the record of our own weaknesses and failures should give us plenty of grounds for modesty.

Yet the reality of our own talents and successes, of God’s grace at work in us, should give us confidence also. We must recognize our limits but also our gifts; our self-esteem should reflect reverence for the God who made us. Humility doesn’t mean we’re weak or unsure of ourselves; indeed it means we have the self-awareness and self-confidence to be comfortable amongst others, recognizing their value without feeling threatened. As the Creator of the universe did not despise the shame of becoming human and humbling himself to His Father and His fellow men, even unto death, before being exalted above all creation (Phil 2:8-9), so are we called to defer to reality and its Lord.

Humility, then, should make us fearlessly frank about ourselves, despising flattery, admitting when we are wrong, recognizing when others do better than us; but also fearlessly optimistic, despising false humility and self-loathing, appreciating our achievements or God’s achievements in us. And once we honestly evaluate who we are and can be, what graces we have and can expect from God, we will extend selves appropriately. Humility, St Thomas explains, is bound to magnanimity, to generosity of soul, to thinking big not small. When Jesus tells people to practice humility even at the dinner table, He’s not saying be unconcerned with excellence and honours; otherwise His story about the humble man being promoted would make no sense. We properly do great things, deserving of honour, but not for the sake of worldly praise. We are not driven by a need for admiration, nor deterred from doing the unpopular but right thing.

Of course, what Plato only glimpsed in his model of the philosopher king, with vision, principle and humility, was an ideal only ever fully realized in Christ the King. Here was a leader who gave up everything in order to serve: His divine comfort, His angelic army, His mortal life. He was willing to be born in a stable, as the most powerless of creatures, a newborn baby. He lead from the front, from beside, from the back. He listened and encouraged. He taught about humility and he walked His talk. He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.

And during my visit to this parish I’ve seen some great examples of leadership amongst both clergy and laity, in our schools and parish communities. I’ve witnessed much good happening here, including preaching and teaching, worship and devotions, ministries and groups. But this is no cause for complacency: if only 1 in 6 Catholics in this area comes to Sunday Mass, you still have work to do, humbly leading people back to faith and practice. It means deepening your own sense of Catholic identity, recommitting yourself to missionary discipleship, and then reaching out to the 5 out of 6 and to others. I invite everyone here to consider what she or he might do for the parish or the wider Church. You might say the problem is too big for you: if so, then well done, by your humility you’ve shown yourselves to be the perfect people for the job!


Visitation of St Mary MacKillop Rockdale City, St Gabriel Bexley and St Francis Xavier Arncliffe

St. Joseph’s Church, Rockdale

Welcome to St Joseph’s Church for this morning’s Mass as I complete my canonical visitation of the communities of St Joseph’s Rockdale and St Francis Xavier Arncliffe which make up St Mary MacKillop Parish Rockdale City, and the parish of St Gabriel’s Bexley. Over the last few days I have encountered the leaders, staff, children and parents of our three primary schools and Marist College Kogarah, offered Mass in the three churches, and met the clergy, ministry leaders, pastoral staff and parishioners of the three parishes, including visiting the sick. I heard from you all about the gifts and challenges, opportunities and hopes you have for your Church. I thank Fr Yacub, Fr Frank and all the parishioners for the welcome I have received.

To everyone present this morning, and especially Fathers on this Fathers’ Day, a very warm welcome!

[1]     Amy Ou, David Waldman & Suzanne Peterson, “Do humble CEOs matter? An examination of CEO humility and firm outcomes,” Journal of Management 212 Sept 2015; Amy Ou, Anne Trui & Angelo Kinicki, “Humble CEO’s connections to top management team integration and middle managers’ responses,” Administrative Science Quarterly 8 January 2014; Jeff Hyman, “Why humble leaders make the best leaders,” Forbes 31 October 2018 https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffhyman/2018/10/31/humility/ #2efc188b1c80; Lolly Daskal, “The best leaders are humble leaders,” https://www.lollydaskal.com/leadership/ thebestleadersarehumble/; Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (Crown, 2002); Darren Hardy, “7 unique qualities of the best leaders in history,” https://darrenhardy.com/blog/leadership-qualities-best-leaders; Brian Tracy, “7 leadership qualities, attributes and characteristics of good leaders,” https://www.briantracy.com/blog/leadership-success/the-seven-leadership-qualities-of-great-leaders-strategic-planning/; Jim Collins, Good to Great (Century, 2001).