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I was happy to see Hayes & Comer’s book, Start with Humility:  Lessons from America’s Quiet CEOs on How to Build Trust and Inspire Followers (2010) on the reading list for Servant Leadership in Theory & Practice.  I have struggled to find balance with self-esteem, humility, and arrogance for most of my life.  True humility is a character trait that has eluded me.  I will attempt to honestly reflect upon my journey in finding humility at the center of True Self and my recent efforts to bring humility forward in my leadership practices.

I struggled with poor self-esteem throughout most of my childhood and adolescence.  I came from a nuclear family that valued appearances, was very status aware, and perfection was something to be sought after.  I never felt like I could live up to my maternal family’s expectations for physical appearance, social behavior, or academic achievement.  It seemed like no matter what I did, I wasn’t good enough; I was always just shy of expectations.  This, coupled with an elementary school environment where I was persistently teased by a number of classmates in a time when bullying was “just something that kids do”, produced in me an almost paralyzing form of low self-esteem.  It manifested within me as eating disorders, a sense of worthlessness, and a lack of self-respect.

Through peer counseling in high school and a myriad of self-help books I began to address my self-esteem issues.  One area that I had particular trouble with was accepting positive affirmation from people.  If I was complimented on something, I would disagree and point out all of the things I could have done better.  To this day I continue to make an effort to gracefully say “thank you” when complimented instead of being critical of myself.

Over the last 22 years I have made great progress in learning to love and accept myself for who I am authentically.  I owe this in large part to my husband, Steve, and a diverse community of friends who all loved and accepted me as well.  It is easy to like yourself when you are surrounded with people who embrace you for all your quirks and uniqueness.

As a young adult I had acquired the confidence needed to become an effective leader in my work and within the community.  However I began to realize in my 30s that I had overcompensated a bit for my low self-esteem.  To those who were less confident or outspoken, I was coming off as arrogant.  For the last five years I have made a special effort to become more cognizant of how my words affect people.  I try to consider how I phrase what I am saying, so that my words lift everyone up and not just myself.  This practice has been especially helpful when accepting compliments.  Instead of going with my first reaction to argue why my performance was not deserving of praise, or simply saying “thank you” politely, I now accept the compliment and direct it toward someone else who was also involved with the accomplishment.  This is a habit of Linda Combs, former controller for the U.S. Office of Management & Budget:

Linda was not interested in this being just her day, her ‘moment’.  She was anxious to share the spotlight with a special person … The idea of ‘checking one’s ego at the door’ and putting the emphasis on others, was abundantly demonstrated on this warm August day at a retirement ceremony (Hayes & Comer, 2010, p. 64).

No matter if your ego is damaged or inflated, checking it at the door is absolutely necessary in discovering True Self.

My husband would say we took the idea of checking your ego at the door to a whole new level with a number of decisions we made after I began the discernment process to become a covenant affiliate with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.  I had been studying the book St. Francis & the Foolishness of God (Dennis, Nangle, Moe-Lobeda & Taylor, 1993) and had been discussing ministry and radical humility with my FSPA contact for several months.  My high profile position as managing director of a professional children’s theatre company was no longer fulfilling.  I was feeling called to minister more fully to my family and the community where we had made our home in West Central Minnesota, but didn’t know where to begin.

I looked to the example of my Brother Francis.  Before he fully began his ministry of service to the poor and disenfranchised, he spent approximately three years disengaging from his former life as a merchant and making himself the lowest of the low.  He became the poor and disenfranchised before he began ministering to them.  This radical act of humility enabled him to serve on a grassroots level instead of from above.  Francis intimately understood the lens through which the community he served viewed the world.  It changed everything – how he related to those he served and how they related to him.  Had Francis not humbled himself in this radical way, his ministry would not have been as effective.

St. Francis is not alone in seeing the wisdom of developing authentic relationship with those he serves.  Four-star General and West Point teacher, Frederick M. Franks, Jr. is noted as making this a hallmark of his leadership in the U. S. Army:

It was on the Czech border during the height of the Cold War that Franks learned another lesson valuable to humble leadership, the importance of staying close to the troops, getting opinions of others, and trusting what they say (Hayes & Comer, 2010, p. 53).

Hayes & Comer go on to relay a story on how Franks finds his platoon stuck in the fog in unfamiliar and hostile territory.  They are led to safety by a scout section leader who speaks up after the troop comes to a standstill.  Because Franks knew his troops on a personal level they were comfortable offering him assistance when the need arose and he was trusting of their capacity to get the job done.

Steve and I needed to develop authentic relationship with our neighborhood and the Elbow Lake community as well.  We had lived in the small town for about three years, but were still very much outsiders.  Our jobs had kept us busy and on the road so we did not know many of our neighbors.  We were just becoming aware that our neighborhood was perceived as the “slum” by the rest of Elbow Lake, and that this perception was the source of many injustices for the people who lived on the west side of town.  There was a lot of work to be done.

And so with blind faith I resigned from my leadership position at the children’s theatre and became a stay-at-home mom.  At the same time my husband lost his teaching job at the community college (funny God’s timing) so we started up our own computer business.  While these situations happening at the same time were a huge source of stress for us, it gave us the freedom to build relationships.  Since we were home for the majority of the year, we had the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with our neighbors.  We were also able to build good relationships with the rest of the Elbow Lake community as local business owners.

While we had the freedom to build relationships during this time, it was also a time of struggle with very little income.  We were forced to seek the help of Social Services, the Salvation Army, Public Health, Community Action, and other local support systems.  We became familiar with the processes that modest-income people need to go through in order to access assistance with health care, heating the home, and food.  This process showed me where my help was needed and how to best approach the problems.  After several years of living simply I was ready to advocate for my community in the areas of housing rehabilitation and municipal policy through both the Land of Lakes Group Workcamp and the Westside Association.

Steve and I have embarked upon the second leg of our journey in humility.  I left the workforce about a month ago in order to study servant leadership full-time in graduate school.  We are drawing the purse strings tight again because there aren’t many coins to fall out when living on one income.  We have cut our food budget in half, which means we need to seek out the services of WAFER in order to keep the pantry stocked.  Sam and I have been volunteering at the food shelf to “pay back” the generosity.  I am sure come winter we will be getting heating assistance again too.  I thank God for this opportunity to understand how modest-income folk make their way through the system in Wisconsin as well, and I pray that the experience will show me how I am to be of service in my hometown now that I am back.

I don’t foresee my journey towards true humility ever coming to a close.  I believe it is a balancing act that most leaders strive to maintain throughout their lives.  All experiences I have related here on my humble journey were full of pain, fear, and at times doubt.    Luckily, the pain has worn away some of the layers of ego so that my True Self is free to claim its place as an effective servant leader.

References

Dennis, M., Nangle, J., Moe-Lobeda, C., & Taylor, S. (1993). St. francis and the foolishness of god. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Hayes, M. A., & Comer, M. D. (2010). Start with humility: Lessons from america’s quiet ceo’s on how to build trust and inspire followers. Westfield, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

 

Herrmann Computer Services, Inc. (2012). Franciscan sisters of perpetual adoration: Hot topics/events. Retrieved from http://www.fspalive.org/index.php?action=home

Paiz, J., Angeli, E., Wagner, J., Lawrick, E., Moore, K., Anderson, M., Soderlund, L., Brizee, A., Keck, A. (2012, March 14). In-text citations: The basics. Retrieved from http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/1/

Son of citation machine. (2010). Retrieved from citationmachine.net

 

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