The Greatness of Humility
Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )
Why humility is the key to charisma and effective leadership.
This week's portion says that a Jewish king is commanded to write for himself a Torah scroll and to carry it with him at all times (Deut. 17:18-20). The idea behind this is that the king needs to maintain perspective. He should remember just where his power comes from, and not make the mistake of thinking that he is in control. In Jewish thinking, arrogance is the worst of all traits, while humility is the greatest trait. When the Torah looks to praise Moses, he is singled out as the "most humble of all men" (Numbers 12:3). That, the Sages say, is the greatest and most genuine form of charisma.
We see from here that the purpose of humility is not so much a hedge against becoming intoxicated with power; rather, the idea is that humility itself is empowering. But how does this work?
Humility does not mean lack of self-esteem. It does not mean self-denigration (Uriah Heep style). Humility, in Judaism, is a recognition that there are more important things in this world than my own desires and needs. Humility is a matter of perspective. Talented and capable as I may be, I am nevertheless only a small part of a vast universe. The humble person realizes: What's right is infinitely more valuable than serving myself.
The more humble, the greater the leader, because a humble person has no interest in his own honor, power and self-aggrandizement. He serves those who he leads.
In Torah law, the people are not servants of the king; the king is a servant of the people. The first king of Israel, Saul, did not want the job. And because he did not want the job, he was the right man for the job. Because the extent to which a leader enjoys the trappings of power, is the extent to which he no longer serves the people alone.
The humble person will not only have the confidence of those he leads, he will also be unafraid of those he leads. Doing that which is right for the nation is all that matters to him. Whether or not he is popular is irrelevant.
On a personal level, this applies to us as well. If you have humility, then living with what you believe to be right is more important than what others think of you. A humble person is unaffected by social pressures, unmoved by societal norms. Indeed, humility is the foundation of true independence.
Arrogance is a fast track to mediocrity. Humility, on the other hand, paves the way for greatness. It is no accident that the Torah considers Moses - "the most humble of all" - to be the greatest human being that ever lived.