Monday, February 05, 2007

The Measure of Greatness

Last week, I posted on Jim Collins' exhortation to create a pocket of greatness. Yet, I wonder if his approach to pursuing greatness actually hits the mark. Don't get me wrong, I obviously love much of what he says and when it comes to insights on leadership, I have little to add to Collins' extensive knowledge.

However, I can't help but wonder if the way a Christian creates a pocket of greatness isn't fundamentally different from what Jim Collins has in mind. This past weekend, I did a little research to see what I could dig up on how Collins might define greatness. I was surprised to discover this rather interesting interview from Christianity Today where Collins expounds on his view of greatness in the social sector, highlighting churches in particular. Among the many good things said in the interview, he makes the point that for an organization to be great, it must have three components - superior performance relative to its mission, a distinctive impact on its community and endurance.

There are many useful insights to be gleaned from the writings of Jim Collins and other management gurus. However, I'd like to suggest that despite the immense popularity of Good to Great, his definition of greatness is deficient as a model for Christians in the workplace. Not completely invalid, but perhaps insufficient when measured against a biblical model.

When greatness is spoken of in the Bible, it is defined by the essential mark of humility. To his credit, Jim Collins does identify humility as a key feature of level 5 leadership, the kind of leadership essential to leading a company to greatness. He says "leaders who took companies from good to great are characterized by personal humility and by a fierce dedication to a cause that is larger than themselves".

However, I think there is a subtle difference between the kind of level 5 leadership characterized by humility and what Jesus says when he speaks of greatness.

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)

It seems to me that when Jesus says this, he isn't saying "if you want to someday attain greatness, you need to pay your dues by being humble". Humility isn't just a stepping stone on the journey to greatness. Instead I think he's making the point that the essence of greatness is humility.

And what is humility? CJ Mahaney helps us out with this quote from his book, Humility - True Greatness.

Serving others for the glory of God. This is the genuine expression of humility; this is true greatness as the Savior defined it.

If you agree with CJ's definition of humility, no true humility is possible without a view towards the glory of God.

Here's the point of this long winded post. As I thought about it, I'm convinced that as Christians, we must possess a biblical definition of greatness, before we venture off to create pockets of greatness everywhere. In Jim Collin's model, greatness is measured by a successful outcome with humility as an interesting, possibly necessary attribute to great leadership. In Jesus' model, greatness isn't even remotely possible without is in fact, equated with humility...and humility is defined by service to others for the glory of God.

I'd like to extend CJ's point on humility to include this additional idea...humility isn't just serving others for God's glory but doing so with the means and strength he supplies. We were never meant to pursue greatness apart from God. We were meant to pursue greatness by serving God and depending on God.

In fact, pursuing greatness, apart from God, even if it involves well-intended service to others, isn't virtuous at all - it's self righteousness. We must pursue greatness with motive and means that come from God.

What do you think? Am I off the mark here? I still want to create pockets of greatness...I just want to do so in the right way.


L.L. Barkat said...

This is a topic I've been thinking about and was greatly touched by during my church's communion service this past weekend.

I looked down in the cup of wine (grape juice!) and suddenly felt an overwhelming sense that I need to be willing to "give my blood," my very self, to the cause of others... rather than asking them to give theirs for me. I wish I could express this as poignantly as I experienced it...

the overwhelming sense that I needed humility, as I stared into that dark, rich, shining cup.

andre said...


Thanks - there are precious few times we think about humility...there is something about the sacraments (communion in particular) that surface those thoughts.

Your comment makes me think about Jesus and his prayer in Gethsemane - "if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless not my will but yours be done." As you've shared, communion is a wonderful reminder of his act of humility on our behalf.

Mark Goodyear said...

Andre, this is a fantastic post! What I love about your blog is the incredible depth and insight you put into every post. They are more like short essays than blog posts really.

I don't think you are off the mark at all.

For me humility is also about an awareness and acceptance of the service God has entrusted to me. Like the parable of the talents. The man who received two talents isn't jealous of the man who receives more. He puts his talents to work, invests what the master has given him, takes risks, and doubles his portion for the glory of the master.

I'm also reminded of the way John Lewis translates Rom. 12:1-2. Do not think more highly of yourself than it is necessary for you to think. Which implies for me that part of humility is recognizing the service and talents and portions God has given me. Part of humility is boldness about where I am called to serve God and others.

It's such an odd, paradoxical idea.

I wish C. S. Lewis had written something like "The Problem with Pride and Humility." Oh well. I guess you'll have to write it, Andre.

andre said...


Thanks for your kind words of encouragement. My posts are short essays? I always thought I was long winded... I like your description better. :-)

On a serious note, you've brought up a point that I find interesting - the link between humility and the kind of courage needed to take risks. Hmmnn, there's more there to dig into...

Also, you said -

"Part of humility is boldness about where I am called to serve God and others."

Contrary to what we might think, humility isn't about being a shrinking violet, it actually leads us to act boldly. That's good, really good.

Ted Gossard said...

Andre, Great thoughts.

I think humility, in its essence, is coming to more and more understand who we are and who God is and who each other are. And how this all fits together, in the ongoing Story of God.

This means I am willing to do my part, with all its deficiencies. Yet in God, by his gift, to do it. And be joined with others doing the same thing. With their unique contributions, in jars of clay to be sure, to our calling together, in this world.

Well, something like that....

I think your points are well taken. Thanks.

L.L. Barkat said...

Andre... wow... I hadn't even thought of it that way. That's a deep connection (shall I ever make it through communion again in one piece?)

Meng said...

Great thoughts here. Its funny how man is so preoccupied with greatness. Jesus's disciples were just as preoccupied with this question. (Luke 22:24 - A dispute arose anong the disciples as to which of them was the greatest...Matt18:1 - The disciples asked "who is the greatest...)

I tried to look for a theme running acrosss Jesus reply and it appears to me that in the Kingdom, its the other way around...its not about being great, its about serving and dying to self. I like what you said that humility isn't the stepping to stone to greatness.... but "The essence of greatness is humility!"

andre said...

Do you think that man's preoccupation with greatness is necessarily sinful or is it an innate desire that God places in us...which we then distort by seeking greatness apart from Christ?

Just wondering.

andre said...


A core component of humility is simply seeing/understanding ourselves and God in proper light. It's difficult to be proud when you see God for who he is...and correspondingly, the frailty of our humanity

Brian Hollar said...

Andre, I wanted to say thanks for the kudos on my blog. I've enjoyed yours as well. I just started going to Sovereign Grace here in Fairfax and heard Mark Mullery mention your blog at the service a couple Sundays ago.

I used to use much of Jim Collins' book "Good to Great" when I was leading a discipleship ministry down in Orlando. I appreciate your thoughts on keeping humility the focus of our actions and not looking at it solely as a means of accomplishing something else.

I think the aim of a Christian should be to pursue humility in all we do -- even when it doesn’t lead to (or is counter to) success. I appreciate the points Collins makes about humility and am encouraged to know that empirical evidence seems to indicate that humility is a valuable characteristic in leadership. What Collins does not address (and to be fair to him, it’s outside the purview of his book) is that if we are trying to live for God’s glory, we should pursue humility even when it costs us something. I am currently working on my PhD in economics over at GMU. One of the primary lessons of econ is that we reveal what we value by what we are willing to give up in order to obtain it. As a Christian I believe we glorify God when we show we are willing to pay a significant price to obey His commands.

I will have to check out Mahaney's book on humility soon. If it's anything like "The Cross Centered Life" it's bound to be great.

andre said...


Welcome to Sovereign Grace Church. Hope you find a home here...I've been part of the church for over 22 years - which probably just means I'm old.

I like what you said in your comment -

"One of the primary lessons of econ is that we reveal what we value by what we are willing to give up in order to obtain it. As a Christian I believe we glorify God when we show we are willing to pay a significant price to obey His commands."

Wow, sounds a little like Piper-speak in econ language. :-)

Excellent...thanks for sharing that thought. Hope to see you on Sunday morning.

Amanda said...

I just stumbled across your blog as I was doing a search on humility. I thank you for your insights and encourage your desire to look at your work and challenge others in their daily lives to see greatness in a different light.
God has been slowly opening my eyes and directing me towards a life lived in this manner and so this has been a moment of assurance for me.
I hope to pass this blog onto my dad who is in metal fabrication. I think that this style may speak to him.

Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for the encouraging words - I'm glad this post blessed you.

Please visit again.