November 14, 2011

John Dickson, Humilitas

John Dickson's Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadershipis a historical survey of the virtue of humility, along with a frank appraisal of its value and benefits. His subtitle is apt: a lost key to life, love, and leadership. The book is self-consciously styled as a leadership book, though Dickson is clear up front that his expertise in the topic is largely as a historian, as opposed to a leadership expert. And I would say it is very successful in that mold, demonstrating the (counter-intuitive) thesis that humility is a key leadership virtue. But I think the book's benefits extend far beyond the world of leadership. They apply to everyday life, to our closest relationships, and to everything we say and do.

Dickson defines humility as "the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself." He continues by summarizing humility as "a willingness to hold power in service of others" (24, emphasis original). He builds off this definition first by making a historical argument that the ancients didn't value humility as a value, but that a decisive change took place with Jesus Christ, who lived a life typified by humility and called his followers to do likewise. It is worth noting, at this point, though, that while Dickson himself is a Christian, and while Jesus proves a crucial turning point in this history of humility, his arguments are self-consciously not "Christian" in the sense that he doesn't argue from the Bible, instead elevating the virtue based on largely pragmatic and aesthetic grounds, though I think that serves the book well, especially as he envisions a wider audience in leadership circles. But that argument is successful, I think, as he demonstrates the beauty we perceive in humility, the growth and development that can come with humility, and the persuasiveness and inspiration that can come from a leader (or anyone) who exhibits humility.

Dickson's book is an enjoyable read, peppered with stories and anecdotes that illustrate and persuade at the same time. It works as a leadership book, showing the unexpected and counter-intuitive value that comes from humility. But I think it also works for anyone, and especially any Christian, who wants to develop this essential virtue. His clear and persuasive writing make this powerful argument easily readable but also winsome, and I am glad to recommend it.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine program and the publisher for the review copy.

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