Strong Meekness: An Undervalued Virtue Of Leadership

August 21, 2011 30 Comments

Is meekness a desirable quality in a leader? I’m trying to wrap my brain around that question, and the hard part is defining what meekness is and what it is not.

This question is void of meaning unless you recognize leadership as an influence relationship. Leadership arises from the dynamic interaction of two or more people using their available sources of power (e.g. referent, expert, position, reward, coercive) to affect purpose-driven, real changes.

Borrowing from John Dickson’s thoughts on humility, I’m going to define meekness as a response to power directed at you by another that considers the good of others before yourself. The meek leader first absorbs as much of the power directed at him or her as possible, dissipates whatever will not benefit the group, and then responds with purposeful foresight. Meek leaders are systems thinkers – they carefully consider the “big picture” of all their actions and reactions.

Meekness is not weakness. Meekness emanates from a position of power as an intentional response to produce a positive affect in others.  Over time the bold, counterintuitive nature of meekness fundamentally redefines the interpersonal interaction of those in close relationship.

Fearlessness is the paradox of meekness. Meek leaders never cower from the responsibility of right response.

Meekness is not humility. Dickson sees humility as the active use of power and influence for the good of others. Humility is something that I initiate and direct toward you; meekness is my response to your initiatives directed at me. Meekness and humility are full siblings, and sometimes rivals. Humility should mature faster than meekness simply because most of us will find more opportunities to practice humility; however, the development of meekness will always constrain our ability to lead with humility.

Like all virtuous leadership characteristics, meekness is a learned discipline. We are all born unique, but not meek. Strong meekness, like wisdom, is rare and remarkable. Strong meekness is very prudent.

Is meekness a desirable quality in a leader? I think so. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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  1. LeaderLab » Closeout for 8.26.11 | August 26, 2011
  1. Liz Weber says:

    Wow that is a tough word for me to get comfortable promoting as a positive leadership characteristic. To not get caught up in debates with my clients on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the word, I think I am going to NOT include it and instead use my time with my clients helping them move forward.
    Interesting question though.

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Liz. I did not expect this to be a popular concept. I too am trying to figure it out – the blog post helps me share my thoughts and get feedback from other. Thanks! Bret

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  2. Randy Conley says:

    Hi Bret. I agree with you that meekness is an undervalued quality in leaders. I believe it’s due to a misunderstanding of the concept of meekness. As you mentioned, meekness isn’t weakness. Meekness is power under control used for the benefit of another.

    A horse is a meek animal. It is incredibly powerful and strong and could do tremendous damage to its rider if it chose to do so, but the horse has been trained to keep its power under control and use it for the benefit of the rider.

    I can see you’ve been ruminating on Dickson’s book, Humilitas, and it’s making me want to pick up a copy!

    Best regards,

    Randy Conley
    Trust Practice Leader, The Ken Blanchard Companies
    Twitter @RandyConley
    http://leadingwithtrust.com

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Randy! Really appreciate you sharing the analogy of the horse. Isn’t Abraham Lincoln also a good example of meekness in leadership? You will find some stuff in Dickson’s book that you won’t find other places – check it out. Thanks! Bret

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  3. John Griffin says:

    Love this post Bret! Although I am no “coach”, it seems that to “teach” this important trait to someone else, meekness is best demonstrated rather than described. Thanks for sharing!

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Tough to both describe and demonstrate. Wonder why this word is so repulsive to some? Thanks, John! Bret

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  4. Susan Fix says:

    Great post, Bret! Meek by definition is “patient and mild” and by action the same. Perhaps this wonderful trait has lost its power in translation – it is not weak. There are many powerful leaders who do not have to shout and scream to be heard, they can whisper and we will follow. Thanks for the thought-provoking article! Susan

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    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing those observations, Susan. Meek can also represent a calm and controlled response. I also see no reason why meekness cannot when needed also be very direct, matter-of-fact, and stern. The key is it’s what others need the most from you in this situation in terms of your response. Thanks! Bret

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  5. davidburkus says:

    Interesting post. I’m trying to shorten that definition in my mind. I’m thinking:

    “Meakness is using just as much power as others need.”

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I like that, but you also have to clearly differentiate meekness from humility. I see humility has initiated and meekness as a response. Also, when you say “just as much” power becomes all quantitative and not qualitative. Thanks, Bret

    [Reply]

  6. Evergreen says:

    Bret:

    I, too am having a tough time with the idea of a meek leader. Do you have any (non-religious) examples of such a leader?

    Great question! My thoughts are popping like popcorn.

    Evergreen
    http://noexcusesleadershiptraining.blogspot.com/

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I’m surprised that the word meek has such a negative connotation. Again, I don’t think for a moment meek means week. Not often, but I’ve practiced this before. Had a boss that was an asshole to me once, and instead of fighting back, I yielded. It totally caught him off guard and I could tell he knew he had over applied his power. In response to my response, he ended up over compensating for being a jerk. If I had been tough and fought back, it would have been a different story. Thanks! Bret

    [Reply]

    Evergreen Reply:

    Bret:

    Thanks for sharing that example–it helps me see how this empowers the situation and removes the ego from stepping in. I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage to act with meekness. I have enjoyed the dialogue on this post and it has helped me see how valuable meekness can be.

    Best,

    Evergreen

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It’s not my normal response, but I’ve seen firsthand how powerful it can be. It’s a concept and practice I’m still trying to understand. Thanks! Bret

    [Reply]

  7. Beth says:

    I like the way you relate meekness to being prudent, Bret. It seems to me that a constructively meek leader is one who is mission-driven instead of ego-driven, and prudent enough to know that mission success may be often won by overcoming our propensity towards self-promotion.

    Like all character traits, meekness has a negative aspect, something we might commonly call “not standing up for yourself.” I have exhibited that kind of meekness too often in my past. This kind of passive reticence is not constructive. It is also deplored by Western culture, which makes the word “meekness” take on such a distasteful connotation.

    Anyway, somehow I think the key lies in being mission-driven. A prudent leader realizes that he or she has worth, and strives to see that worth applied for the good of the mission — but a prudent leader also acknowledges that other people have worth as well, and is willing to defer his or her commonly-assumed rights or privileges within a hierarchy, when doing so empowers the mission at hand.

    The message of constructive meekness is clear: “It’s not about me.” But with that message, a leader also has to clarify what it IS about.

    Thanks for once again putting forward a thought-provoking concept. Reading your blog is a great way for me to do a continuous radar sweep of my internal leadership landscape.

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    You summarized it very well, Beth. I think there is a difference between standing down and not standing up for yourself. Meekness takes a stand, but not with fists raised. It’s more posture than pretense. Thanks! Bret

    [Reply]

  8. Jo says:

    Thank You for writing on this subject…it is one that caught my attention 13 years ago when I was attending Bible College – I spoke on this subject for my “Power Preaching” final exam…and got a 104% (I might ad). At any rate I found a definition which I adopted as my own MEEK/MEEKNESS= Power under perfect control. It’s short and sweet which is one of the things I like about it…Just thought I would share.

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jo. I like your concept of meek as power under control. My only point is that to differentiate this from humility, which is also about power, you have to have a little more. Thanks for sharing! Bret

    [Reply]

  9. Meek is defined as, “humbly patient or docile, as under provocation from others.” While this often is not a trait that is admireable in leaders I believe that it needs to be a tool in a leaders tool box. There is no question that leaders must swiftly take action and make decisions quickly, but the best ones also have the ability to take a step back and patiently evaluate different opinions and courses of action.

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Very well stated, Jacob. Meekness really becomes a virtue when others are trying to provoke us. If we take the bait, then they can work to destroy us. Meekness plants the seeds of their demise, not ours. Thanks! Bret

    [Reply]

  10. Dillon says:

    Could you give an example of meekness being used as a leadership style/point. I get the definition but am having trouble turning the concept into something I can tangibly understand.

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    The thing to keep in mind is I’m talking about a response to power being used on us. Meekness will come into play mostly as a response to our bosses and peers. I had a boss one time that used way too much power with me in a situation. He punished me when he did not need to. After he sucker punched me, he had his fists up (not literally) ready for me to take a swing at him. I did not, instead I dropped my fists and yielded. My response caused him to not only drop his fists as well but to feel very crappy about himself – he knew he was wrong. Had I not responded in meekness, the situation would have turned out entirely differently. Instead of getting the snot beat out of me by someone with more power, I got that person to use their power to help me. My response to their behavior changed their behavior. For lack of a better analogy, meekness is like leadership judo. Thanks! Bret

    [Reply]

  11. Jon M says:

    Bret,

    Meekness is a solid leadership characteristic. Although it seems opposite, there is a strength in a meek approach. It is an approach of patience and understanding, a seek-to-understand first step.

    In my opinion, leaders who have a meekness quality carry a strong inner spirit in their words and actions.

    Excellent post!

    Jon

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jon! I like your observations. Helps clarify a difficult concept. Thanks! Bret

    [Reply]

  12. Beth says:

    Bret, in thinking about this subject, I remembered a true-life example that many of us may remember from the movies — actually from my favorite movie. In Apollo 13, rookie astronaut Ken Mattingly is scrubbed from the mission 72 hours before launch because of a possibility of exposure to German measles. Being robbed of his moment in history on such slim and arbitrary grounds rankles him, and he responds to his superiors with frustration at first, but then his self-discipline kicks in. After launch, when the mission is endangered, a still-completely-healthy Ken Mattingly works nonstop in the flight simulator to troubleshoot a solution and plays a pivotal role in the rescue of the three Apollo 13 astronauts.

    (Despite a stellar career as a Navy carrier pilot — a job not known for reticence — the real Ken Mattingly was able to accept an unwanted position on the sidelines and perform with excellence under grueling pressure, undoubtedly aided by his experience as the astronaut member of the NASA team that developed and tested the Apollo spacesuit and backpack. He truly seemed fated to fill the key role of emergency systems tester that was needed got the other men back on the ground.)

    Actor Gary Sinise effectively portrays Ken’s meekness in overcoming his disappointment and sense of entitlement to sustain a team mentality and help the mission succeed. It’s a powerful performance.

    The real Ken Mattingly never got into orbit as an Apollo astronaut. But he went on to play key leadership roles at NASA throughout his career until his retirement in 1985. Because of his Apollo 13 role, many in NASA looked up to him as a legendary figure. He was a mentor to astronauts and helped design and direct onboarding, support and training systems for them up through the shuttle era.

    Apollo 13 is a great movie about teamwork — and just the kind of entertainment to watch with the family on a rainy end-of-summer day — or if you’re in the New York area, like me, maybe during a hurricane! :)

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    That’s a great example, Beth. Makes me want to go back and watch that movie again. Thanks for sharing! Bret

    [Reply]

  13. Beth says:

    Oops, correction, actually Mattingly was on board Apollo 16 and even drove the EVA around on the moon. Go Ken!

    [Reply]

  14. Nath says:

    Religion aside, I believe that the different versions of “the meek shall inherit the earth” refers to the indigenous people of this planet who have always viewed nature and the environment with reverence, nurturing and deep respect, as well as with consideration for their ancestors and future generations. With strength, not weakness. Your positive definition of the word “meek” ties in with that – rather than the Uriah Heapish interpretation of “meek”!

    [Reply]

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Nath. I do think meek has a positive meaning. Thanks for sharing! Bret

    [Reply]

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