Can we be humble and still be leaders? As a pastor given the charge to lead a congregation, this is a question that has consumed me for more than two decades. I’ve been curious about the connection between humility and leadership ever since I started reading the writings of mystics throughout Christian history and discovered how often they talked about humility.

Of course, the emphasis on humility is as old as religion, and all religions emphasize it, but that doesn’t mean that humility is practiced or stressed by religious folk in every age. Humility is an “essential” virtue that too many of the faithful forget is essential. Perhaps this is because it is among the hardest of all virtues, requiring that we willingly put aside ego and pride to embrace meekness. Who wants to do that? Putting aside ego and pride means letting our faith be created in God’s image. It is much easier to mold faith to fit our image of what God wants. But humility won’t let us do that.

Another mystic, a sixth-century monk named Dorotheos of Gaza, taught that humility and self-accusation were central to the spiritual life. Francis of Assisi, in the 12th century, spoke often about the need to become humble before God. His life was a testimony to the power of humility. Catherine of Genoa, who cared for plague victims in the 15th century, said God taught her that she could overcome her revulsion to the plague victims’ sores by striving for humility. And Thomas à Kempis, a priest who lived in the 14th and 15th centuries, wrote constantly about humility as more important than education and understanding. Likewise, the 20th-century mystics Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Kelly, Hannah Hurnard, Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen constantly emphasized a deepening humility as the pathway to spiritual growth.

Similar instruction appears in Scripture. Blessed are the poor in spirit and the meek (Matt. 5:3, 5). The humble shall be exalted, and the exalted shall be humbled (Luke 18:14). To be great, we have to become humble like children (Matt. 18:3). In Philippians, Paul tells us to humbly think of others as better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3).

So why do modern Christians of all denominations and sects speak so little of humility? In fact, just the opposite seems to be true. It is not uncommon for Christians today to talk about wielding political and even military power on behalf of God. It is not unusual for contemporary Christians on the right and the left self-righteously to declare their position as “the correct” position and all opposing positions as wrongheaded or even heretical. Humility in leadership often seems to be in short supply. Why has humility become the ugly duckling of all the Christian virtues?

Prior to my reading of the mystics, I assumed what many in our culture assume: that cultivating a humble life gets in the way of leading a healthy and thriving organization. But the mystics taught me that humility does not mean becoming feeble. Instead, it means bringing an attitude, a disposition of radical openness to God, into our leadership that allows us to become conduits of the Holy Spirit. The mystics demonstrated that to be humble actually means to be strong in a wholly different and holy way. It means to be strong in seeking God’s way and then to have the courage to lead others in God’s direction despite the resistance and outright opposition by those who want us to follow the ways of the culture and of convention. Humble leaders let Christ lead through them, guiding people to follow God’s path.

Can we be humble and be leaders? From years of seeking an answer to this question and trying to lead from a humble foundation, I’ve discovered that, for me, the answer is yes. I do believe it is possible to be both humble and a leader. In fact, I believe the best leaders always are humble; for it is out of their humility that they find a way to inspire, motivate, and unify those they lead, a way based on first seeking God’s way in everything and then on leading others toward God’s goals.

At the end of my first year of seminary, a biography of Mahatma Gandhi showed me how humility and leadership work hand in hand.1 From the first sentence, that book affected me in a way that few other books have, before or since. It transformed my life by changing my perspective on how we can serve God and lead others through prayer, humility, and faith.

It’s ironic that a biography of an Indian Hindu would have such an impact on an American Christian, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Gandhi based much of his faith and life on Jesus, and especially on the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, he even considered becoming a Christian for a while, until he actually visited a church in South Africa and was refused entrance by a white usher due to his brown skin. Although he walked away from the Christian church that day, Gandhi remained determined to ground his life in the Christ he had discovered in the Bible.

What truly struck me was the way Gandhi led others. He had all the hallmarks of a humble leader. He led people both by becoming radically open to what God was calling him to do and by inviting others to follow in that direction. Humble leaders motivate people to follow God’s vision. In contrast, conventional leaders motivate people to follow the leader’s vision. Leaders such as Gandhi voluntarily give up pride, arrogance, ego, and selfishness to become open to God’s guidance and direction. Gandhi had a strength of character, conviction, vision, and faith that was amazing, yet it never led him to become prideful, arrogant, manipulative, or dismissive of others, especially of those who disagreed with him. Gandhi remained humble throughout his life, and steeped his leadership in humility.

For example, in strategy meetings with fellow independence leaders, Gandhi surprised them and the servants by taking the tea set and serving them. In a society structured for over two millennia by a rigid caste system, this was scandalous. Serving the tea was an act of Christ, an act of leading others by serving them, an act rooted in Jesus’ admonition in John 13 that to be a follower of him means to be a servant.

In another display of humble leadership, Gandhi shocked British and Indians alike by eschewing western clothing and wearing simple sarongs of homespun cotton. This act of humble defiance was his response to a British stranglehold on the Indian economy, the demand that only British-made textiles be produced and sold.

What was most astonishing, though, was Gandhi’s willingness to suffer on behalf of others. While the leaders of most movements try to insulate themselves from suffering, Gandhi embraced it. He was always willing to put himself on the front line to receive beatings from his enemies. In South Africa, as a leader in the struggle for suffrage for those of Indian descent, Gandhi was willing to take terrible beatings from the constables, beatings that left him severely injured. He did so to demonstrate to other Indian expatriates that while their bodies could be broken, their spirit could not be killed. Gandhi led his fellow Indians into a peaceful rebellion in order to secure voting rights for all Indian immigrants.

When he returned to India, he led by setting a peaceful, God-focused example. He invited others to protest the British through nonviolent confrontation. He believed that nonviolence was a powerful weapon. And when the Indian people became violent in their protests, Gandhi embarked upon a personal hunger strike by fasting for weeks in protest of that violence. He deeply believed that the use of violence by the Indian people gave legitimacy to the British by giving them just cause to crush revolts violently. When the Indians remained nonviolent, provoking British violence, this gave legitimacy to the Indian people by demonstrating that the British were unjust. So Gandhi fasted until the Indian people halted all violence. As a leade
r, Gandhi led the Indian people to adhere to Jesus’ teaching: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also” (Luke 6:27–29). As a Hindu, Gandhi may not have been a practicing Christian, but his principles as a leader were thoroughly Christian.

Gandhi led from a strength rooted in humility, and I learned a lot from his example. I learned that there is strength in humility, and that humble leadership exposes self-interest and selfishness in both enemies and friends alike, as it simultaneously purifies motives. When we lead from a sense of humility, willingly putting aside our own motivations and desires in favor of God’s call, we create the context in which people are more willing to put aside their own will to seek God’s will.

I also learned that whatever we are doing, humble leadership allows us to find the path to greater creativity and possibility in whatever we are doing. Gandhi demonstrated, time and time again, how humility enables us to discern creative solutions. His solutions to apparent problems and obstacles were ingeniously creative—and creativity made his nonviolent path toward Indian independence a powerful force. The British could never anticipate what he was going to do. Still, Gandhi never led capriciously. He steeped his plans in prayer. For instance, at one point the Indian independence movement was stalling. There was tremendous pressure for Gandhi to do something, anything, to get the movement back on track. Gandhi did something, but it was not what his followers wanted or expected. They wanted quick, decisive action. Gandhi gave them prayer. He spent eight months at his ashram, praying and seeking God’s will, despite pleas from millions for action. Suddenly one day, he received God’s answer. He told his followers to pack their things, join him in prayer, and prepare to act. After dinner and worship, he and his supporters began to walk. Day after day they walked through towns and villages, and many of the villagers joined the procession. Gandhi kept silent about their destination and objective until he arrived at the sea. With thousands of followers now behind him and many British soldiers surrounding him, he walked calmly to the edge of the water where a large chunk of salt had been formed by the evaporation of the sea water in the hot Indian sun. He picked up the salt, walked over to a British soldier, and said, “I have manufactured salt. You must arrest me!”

So what? Why was this so important? It was important because in this small chunk of salt Gandhi had found a symbol of Indian freedom. A few years earlier, in another attempt to maintain power over the Indian economy, the British had made it illegal for Indians to manufacture this essential element. Only the British could manufacture salt. In a simple gesture, Gandhi had shown the absurdity of British law in India by presenting the British with a dilemma. If they arrested him, they would reveal the oppressiveness of their laws to the Indian people, the British population, and the world. If they didn’t arrest him, they would give implicit permission to the whole Indian population to defy the British in this and every other economic concern. They arrested Gandhi, but his imprisonment ended up giving freedom to the Indians as millions made their own salt by pouring seawater into pans and letting it evaporate on their rooftops.

Gandhi demonstrated to Christians the power of the gospel; he showed how leaders grounded in Christ can transform hearts, minds, souls, and nations when they are willing to become humble leaders. Gandhi also revealed how dangerous humble leadership can be. It can expose the falseness and hypocrisy of the world’s ways. Humble leaders can show people how to experience and follow God in ways they never expected, a pilgrimage that transforms them in ways that they may not anticipate or always welcome. At the same time, humble leadership can be personally dangerous to those of us who seek this humble way. It exposes us to our own weakness, powerlessness, fear, and anxiety. It is impossible to be a humble leader and not grapple constantly with these forces. The way of humility invites us to follow God’s path, a path that potentially leads to failure—the failure to achieve our ambitions through strength in a world that worships power. When we lead through humility, we are choosing a path that emphasizes meekness and weakness, leaving us open to the manipulations of those devoted to wielding power. If we are to become humble leaders, we have to develop a different kind of strength. This strength is a strength of character that few are willing to form, a strength of the Spirit that has its roots in Christ’s way rather than the world’s way. I can think of nothing more humbling than to discover the power of humble leadership from a man like Mahatma Gandhi, who had been rejected by Christians yet lived the gospel more profoundly than most Christians ever will.

I learned a lot about humble leadership from Gandhi. I also learned another important lesson by reading his biography. I discovered that when we humbly do what Christ calls us to do, God finds a way to make things work out in the end. This was the ultimate lesson I learned from the life of Mahatma Gandhi. When we humble ourselves as we lead others, God works through us to do Christ’s will. By aligning our will with God’s, we invite the Spirit’s power to flow through us and into whatever congregation or organization we are leading.

This article was adapted from N. Graham Standish’s latest book, Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace, published by the Alban Institute in March 2007.