Aiming to Succeed? Get Right the 'Great' and 'Small'

Author Advocates Magnanimity and Humility for Leaders

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, DEC. 4, 2012 ( Magnanimity and humility are the indispensable hallmarks of a true and effective leader, and the Catholic faith serves to strengthen these virtues in a way that no other faith can, according to an acclaimed speaker and writer who is dedicated to transforming culture and business.

Alexandre Havard, director and founder of the Moscow- and Washington-based Havard Virtuous Leadership Institute, believes that too often people — including Christians — see leadership as limited to one of these two virtues: either judging oneself worthy of great things, which tends to be the secular take on leadership, or service, which is often the focus for Christians.

But these virtues, when taken separately, are denied their true meaning and value in terms of leadership, Havard believes. Greatness should be understood as magnanimity, that is, not only believing in the capacity for greatness but actually doing great things. And it should be joined with humility, the habit of serving others with all your strength and talents, given by God and discovered by you. 

Speaking to ZENIT after delivering a talk on this topic to the Acton Institute in Rome last week, Havard said that in the history of Christianity, too often there has been a vision of humility that is separate from magnanimity, so people «stop trying to think about what their talents are, what gift they have to multiply.» He added that even the Oxford Dictionary carries a false definition of humility — one that Havard, a Russian-French Catholic, characterizes as «small-mindedness.»

So why has this come about, especially in Christian circles? Havard puts it down to the fact that it is easier to pray to God for help than to think about the gifts he has already given each person through nature. «It’s much easier,» he explained, «to say to God: ‘Do the work in me and I just do nothing, I will just wait for you to do it.'»

«But God very often tells us: ‘I will not do it because I have already given you talents through nature; you have to discover those things and do it,'» he continued. 

Rather than describe this as fatalism or determinism, Havard prefers to call it a «spiritualism» that denies human virtue «in the name of supernatural virtue» — something he also links to Monophysitism, one of the first heresies, which argues that God’s grace absorbs and destroys nature, so there’s no need to build a strong nature in yourself because you have God’s grace.

The way to combat this, Havard explained, is to unite humility with magnanimity and put them into action. «Humility is to say: ‘I have gifts, I have talents, and they come from God.’ You recognize that you have not produced those talents, that they are a gift from him to you,» he explained. «Then magnanimity is to say: ‘I have them but I have to make them fructify, I must develop them and multiply them, and put them at the service of the community and the common good.'»

«So you see these two things come together,» Havard added. «[Talents] are not mine. I have been given them and this is my humility; my magnanimity tells me to multiply them and use them.»

Speaking truth

To cite an example of someone expressing both virtues correctly, he recalls a story of the American Catholic author Flannery O’Connor who, when asked in front of several hundred people why she wrote, replied: «Because I write well.»

«People were absolutely unhappy with this answer, because she was honest, she was telling these people: ‘I had better know what my talents are, as this is the thing I have to multiply. I know I have to write and I have to write better every day, and I know that I’m responsible before God with my writing.'»

«By saying that she writes well, she was in fact telling us she is magnanimous, and those people around her had a small-minded vision of humility,» said Havard. «They understood this sentence as a show of pride and that is very wrong — it’s a problem [that] people have been educated in this false humility.»

What’s more important in exercising leadership, therefore, is not a false hope but human hope, Havard went on. «Human hope, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, is about magnanimity; magnanimity is the virtue that generates human hope because you see that you can do it and then you do it,» he said. «You see that the more you have hope, the more you do things, and that’s why he says magnanimity is the virtue of action.»

So much light

So how does Christianity help in mastering these virtues? To begin with, Christianity isn’t necessary to be a good leader, something to which we are all called, Havard stressed. «The key thing in leadership is human activity, which means there are great leaders who are not Christian, but who have been magnanimous and the servants of others,» he said. But Christianity, he pointed out, «gives so much light, so much strength for magnanimity and humility» through the servant-leadership example of Christ, and the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity, which «elevate and strengthen» the natural virtues.

Christians, too, also have the blessing of being children of God. «Alexander the Great was magnanimous, he had a sense of greatness, although he did not know he was a child of God,» he said. «So imagine Christians, the asset they have for magnanimity! We are children of God and must dream God’s dream.»

To acquire magnanimity, Havard recommended loving others above all. But he also advocated seeking out magnanimous people and spending plenty of time with them. These can be parents, teachers, friends … but also beautiful art, good books and music. He also underlined that magnanimity is not the same as generosity: Someone can be magnanimous but not generous or vice-versa. Rather, it is about considering oneself worthy not only of great things, but doing great things, with the emphasis on action. «This is why entrepreneurship has to do with magnanimity,» he said. «As St. Thomas said: magnanimity is a tendency toward great things, an extension of the soul toward great things.»

Moreover, he pointed out that truly magnanimous people will urge others not to be afraid of making mistakes. Instead, magnanimous people are afraid «of lack of action.» Small-minded people are afraid of making mistakes, Havard said. «Magnanimous people are not afraid of making them because they know that they’re doing so many things that they are bound to make many mistakes. But among those mistakes, certain things will be done right, and they will change the history of humanity.»

To back up his point, he recalled the famous quote of the Austrian management guru Peter Drucker, who said: «The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make, for the more new things he will try. I would never promote to a top-level job a man who was not making mistakes … otherwise he is sure to be mediocre.»

Havard has written two books on this subject: «Virtuous Leadership,» published in 2007, and «Created for Greatness: The Power of Magnanimity,» published last year. The first book focused on all the virtues involved in leadership; in the second, he focuses on these two specific virtues of magnanimity and humility, and how to develop them. Both books have been translated into many languages.

He said he would «love to have people in the Vatican» reading his material, though he stressed recent popes have already provided excellent examples in exercising these virtues of leadership. «John Paul II was a very magnanimous guy,» he said, «and I’m sure Benedict XVI, although I don’t know him very well, is also very magnanimous.»

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