Chapter 9: Humility vs. Ego & the Dangers of Success
“That's it baby, when you got it, flaunt it!”
Mel Brooks, The Producers (1968)
“He made himself nothing…becoming a servant …he humbled himself”
The formula usually looks something like this:
business x (self-confidence + will-to-win + competitive-drive) = wealth x power = S*U*C*C*E*S*S
But is business really locked in to this sort of ruthless calculation? Are there models that differ from the stereotype?
Can successful business people have a servant mind rather than a presidential one? Do self-confidence and humility have to be opposing values? Or are humility and confident self-acceptance both essential Christian attributes for marketplace Christians?
At first glance it seems that the life of David is a rags-to-riches story. The youngest son of a shepherd/farmer living in Israel around 950BC, David spends much of his childhood looking after the family’s sheep. From time to time, in the rugged open country of Judah, the shepherd boy has to confront wild lions and bears. He learns to fight them off so that the flocks in his charge are kept safe. It’s a job that has big demands, little status and scant recognition.
Yet before he has reached the age of 20, three extraordinary events have changed David’s life and destiny, casting him forever into the national spotlight.
The first is an unexpected visit from the principal prophet/judge of Israel. According to Samuel, God has had enough of the way King Saul is running Israel. Samuel is sent to a little-known farmer by the name of Jesse (1 Samuel 16: 1-13). His assignment: to quietly select the future king.
The last person Jesse expects Samuel to be interested in is his youngest child – so when the prophet calls on him to assemble his sons, Jesse doesn’t even bother calling David. Instead, he automatically presents his eldest – and then the others. But each time, God tells Samuel this is not the one. Eventually, when all the other options have been exhausted, Jesse calls for the “runt” of the family. When he sees David, Samuel immediately recognizes that he is the one that God has chosen. David is anointed and the Spirit of God enters him.
There’s clearly something about the young David that God has recognized, something that has the mark of greatness. It’s not his physical appearance – it’s his character and his heart for God.
The second extraordinary event in David’s youthful life is a summons to the royal court. David’s excellent musicianship on the harp has gained some recognition, and he is instructed to play for the melancholic King Saul. Every time David plays his harp, Saul’s depression lifts. More than that, even Saul can recognize David’s qualities. The stripling soon becomes a valued servant of the king.
However, it’s the third event, some time later, that unexpectedly shoots the young David into national prominence. Back home on the farm, Jesse instructs the boy to take some food to his older brothers. They are serving in the Israelite army and are currently engaged in a campaign against the menacing Philistines. Threatened by enemies on virtually every border, the king has mobilized to defend the land. From an opposing hill the Philistines attempt to intimidate the Israelite troops by parading their master warrior. Goliath is a ten-foot giant, and he challenges the Israelites to send out their champion against him. Let the battle be decided by single combat!
One look at Goliath is enough to plunge Saul’s men into despair. No one offers to take up the challenge – except the teenage David, who is indignant at the arrogance of Goliath. The story from this point is, of course, one of the most famous in the Bible. David slays Goliath and becomes an instant national hero. But ominously, the plaudits he receives exceed those of the king. “Saul kills by the thousand, David by the ten thousand!”
In the event, there is to be a long wait before David becomes king. The intervening years are filled with challenge and hardship, as the desperately jealous Saul repeatedly tries to hunt down David and his band of warriors. Through these experiences David’s character and faith are honed. Finally, on the death of Saul he assumes the throne.
The young man has the world at his feet. As king he has the approval of his people and of God. He sets out to rule with justice and compassion. He is a leader with a real love for his subjects and for God.
That is, until he falls in love with a woman who is married to another man. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah is a soldier who is away on duty. So David invites her to his palace. There he sleeps with her … she finds herself pregnant … David panics. He tries to hide his adultery and, by a process of deliberate deceit, to cover his tracks. What results is the virtual murder of Bathsheba’s husband. David has him sent to the front line of battle where he is caught in the open. He and several of his men die, cut down in the crossfire from enemy archers.
With Uriah’s death, David thinks he has concealed his sin. He marries Bathsheba soon afterwards and a son is born. But the issue is not dead and buried. God sends his prophet, Nathan, to confront David. The king is mortified. He realizes that he has completely abused his power and status. Psalm 51 is his way of expressing his repentance.
David’s story is a sobering one. Winning can be dangerous and seductive. As a shrewd modern proverb puts it, “Nothing fails like success.” We can become intoxicated with our business achievements and our prosperity, and from there it’s easy to become overly familiar with God. When success comes our way, we can easily fall into the trap of equating it with God’s blessing. From there it’s only a short step to presuming that God validates our decisions, that he is with us, that he will be understanding and forgiving if we slip up. Before long we can justify almost any action and make ourselves out to be an exception to rules that govern ordinary people.
This is an error that David made. He started to believe his own press. Perhaps he was taken in by the myth of invincibility. But God’s standards are not negotiable. Even though David faces up to his fault, even though he humbles himself and restores his relationship with God – the consequences of that sinful act don’t just disappear. They will cost him dearly in his later years.
That a person like David, who is elsewhere described as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) could end up in such strife is scary. But such is the seductive power of success. And it should serve as a warning to all of us. None of us are immune from acting ignorantly or arrogantly when things are going well and it feels as if God is on our side.
There is something deeply seductive about success. To guard against it there are important attitudes that we need to cultivate – like growing in self-awareness, and nurturing a healthy skepticism about our own motives. It is not just for sentimental reasons that the apostle Paul includes this admonition in his letter to the Christians in Philippi: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus ... who being in very nature God ... made himself nothing.”
We have referred previously (in Chapter 7) to the collapse of the Enron empire – a recent example of Christian humility being eclipsed by the cult of celebrity, in a way that gave rise to spectacularly tragic results. Ken Lay, CEO and Chairman of the Board for Enron appears to have been a devout Christian, although a long-time friend and co-worker of Ken Lay described him as “schizophrenic” when it came to his faith. He sought to live an upright and moral life in many respects and yet was blind when it came to seeing what this might require of him in his position as the responsible head of a corporation.
Arrogant is a word that was frequently used to describe Enron. It paraded itself as the most innovative company in America. Its employees enjoyed being part of what was heralded as a winner. It has been said that the Enron culture bred a sense of self-entitlement and fashionable opulence that is reminiscent of the story of the Titanic. The magnificence of the corporation they had built blinded its directors, as they stood on the bridge, into believing that it could never sink.
TS Eliot once said that:
…half of the harm that’s done in this world is due to people who want to feel important … They don’t mean to do harm … It is just that they become so absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.
Enron’s directors were blind to the signs of failure and doom just around the corner. Yale University law professor Jonathan Macey concluded:
It's Shakespearean. The CEOs who have gone down are people who literally lost touch with reality. Ken Lay had so internalized the idea of an imperial CEO that he blamed everyone but himself. He could not conceptualize that he should take responsibility. 
As Jesus' followers living in a culture fixated on popularity, material wealth and status, we need to constantly work at redefining success. Jesus introduces us to an upside-down kingdom in which the greatest are called to act as the servants of others. We will certainly need to examine and deal with our ambitions and mixed motives if we are to make Jesus’ example of humility and servanthood the pattern for our own lives.
Parker Palmer, the Quaker educationalist and writer, says: 
A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good … Leaders not only need the technical skills to manage the external world but also the spiritual skills to journey inward toward the source of both shadow and light … Failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well intended, our power is always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!
Parker Palmer uses Annie Dillard’s imagery of the “monsters” we have to ride to encourage us to look at some of the hardest realities of our lives. Only by recognizing and naming the darkness “that we carry within ourselves” can we understand the “source of the shadows that we project onto other people.”
If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone ‘out there’ into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.
Palmer then describes five such monsters he has had to ride in his own quest for transformation:
The first shadow-casting monster is insecurity about identity and worth. Many leaders have an extroverted personality that makes this shadow hard to see. But extroversion sometimes develops as a way to cope with self-doubt: we plunge into external activity to prove we are worthy – or simply to evade the question. There is a well-known form of this syndrome, especially among men, in which our identity becomes so dependent on performing some external role that we become depressed, and even die, when that role is taken away.
When we are insecure about our own identities, we create settings that deprive other people of their identities as a way of buttressing our own…
A second shadow inside many of us is the belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests…Unfortunately, life is full of self-fulfilling prophecies. The tragedy of this inner shadow, our fear of losing a fight, is that it helps create conditions where people feel compelled to live as if they were at war.
A third shadow common among leaders is “functional atheism”, the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.
This shadow … leads us to impose our will on others and ends up stressing our relationships, sometimes to the point of breaking. It often eventuates in burnout, depression and despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will … We need to give up playing God and learn to either share the load with others or lay down the load altogether. We are only called to do what we are able and trust the rest to other hands.
A fourth shadow within and among us is fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life. Many of us – parents and teachers and managers – are deeply devoted to eliminating all remnants of chaos from the world. We want to organize and orchestrate things so thoroughly that messiness will never bubble up around us and threaten to overwhelm us. (For ‘messiness’ read dissent, innovation, challenge and change.) In families and churches and corporations, this shadow is projected as rigidity of rules and procedures, creating an ethos that is imprisoning rather than empowering. The insight we receive on the inner journey is that chaos is the precondition to creativity.
The fifth shadow that leaders often project is the denial of death.
Though we sometimes kill things off well before their time, we also live in denial of the fact that all things must die in due course. Leaders who participate in this denial often demand that the people around them keep resuscitating things that are no longer alive. Projects and programmes that should have been unplugged long ago are kept on life support to accommodate the insecurities of a leader who does not want anything to die on his or her watch.
Within our denial of death lurks fear of another sort: the fear of failure. In most organizations, failure means a pink slip in your box, even if that failure, that ‘little death’, was suffered in the service of high purpose. The best leaders in every setting reward people for taking worthwhile risks even if they are likely to fail. These leaders know that the death of an initiative – if it was tested for good reasons – is always a source of new learning.
The gift we receive on the inner journey is the knowledge that death finally comes to everything – and yet death does not have the final word. By allowing something to die when its time is due, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.
When Jesus chooses not to grab for status and success, but rather to walk the road of humble service in spite of the danger of making himself so vulnerable, he models the pattern for our discipleship:
If anyone would come after me let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…For the last shall be first. (Luke 9:23 and Luke 13:30)
But this looks nothing like the formula for success in business – least of all, the one that most “How to...” books would encourage us to adopt.
In this chapter we have mainly looked at the dangers of power for those in management. But what does it mean for employees further down the food chain? One lesson is that all of us can easily end up exploiting and abusing those over whom we have some power. It is often those who experience abuse from above who end up practising abuse from above. Destructive patterns of behaviour are reproduced. So none of us is free from the temptation to use whatever power we have over others in ways that are manipulative and controlling and ultimately destructive, whether this be related to colleagues, employees, or our own children.
But there is another ethical dilemma that Christians often face when they feel exploited and abused by others. Here we are, trying to live as humble servants of those we work under and alongside – but sometimes it feels more like we’re being used. Are there times for showing more assertiveness and less humility?
Consider the following case study…
Robert is a very clever computer software developer. He has been with his present company for several years – in fact, since they began. It wasn’t an easy start-up, and the original staff members made significant sacrifices to get it going, accepting low wages and working long hours. It is now a very successful company. The trouble is, while the other original staff members have now received pay rises and perks and better working conditions, things haven’t changed that much for Robert. He was just a new Christian when he began working for the company – and as far as he knew, the only Christian on the staff. He was very keen to prove that he was a good and loyal worker, going to great lengths and putting in extra hours to make sure the products were successful. Now he is beginning to feel that his humility and good will are being exploited. On the other hand, he loves his job and doesn’t want to undermine his Christian witness, or cause unnecessary conflict or offence.
But is he being taken for granted? Are his feelings of growing resentment just selfishness, or is there a need for more assertive action? What should he do?
1. The story of David’s fall is shocking. What was missing that led him to do wrong? And what will save you from doing the same thing?
2. Chris Seay suggests that not all the blame for Enron’s demise should be laid at the feet of Ken Lay. He posits the idea that Lay may just be a convenient scapegoat for something we all need to take some responsibility for. Maybe we have all helped to create and perpetuate this culture that permeates our society. Haven’t we all elevated material success and celebrity? Don’t we all promote and pursue the sorts of dreams that led to Ken Lay’s downfall? What do you think about this? Are we all to blame?
3. When Parker Palmer talks about “monsters” he has had to learn to ride, which ones do you personally identify with? Can you identify some other “monsters” that you find yourself wrestling with?
4. Look at the case study about Robert. What are the issues? What do you think Robert should do? What do you think Robert needs to learn?
5. Is servant leadership a matter of just being warm and encouraging? When might leadership require us to take control and make demands?
The description of Ken Lay and Enron in this section draws heavily on material from Chris Seay’s book, The Tao of Enron (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002).
Jonathan Macey quote from the Washington Post “White-Collar Crime's New Milestone” by Brooke A. Masters and Carrie Johnson, Friday, May 26, 2006; Page D01.
These are excerpts from Chapter V, entitled “Leading from within” in Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak: listening for the voice of vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).