A Lesson in Humility

Kathryn Lopez

4/11/2008 3:49:59 PM - Kathryn Lopez

Now that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has some time on his hands, I'd like to book him as a trainer for public figures. He's got a message folks from all walks of life could use: Be humble.

The newly minted Catholic understands who he is and what his role is. And that's the underplayed key to leadership.

During a recent interview with the London Times, Blair was asked about his post-Downing Street religious conversion to Catholicism. The interviewer wanted Blair to weigh in on whether a person would be "better off believing that Jesus was the Son of God." Obviously, if Blair believes what his Christian faith teaches, he does. But he answered adroitly: "I believe in and I hold the doctrines of the Christian faith. But I think that when you start to engage in that type of thing -- that actually you'd be better off if you converted to my faith -- if you're not incredibly careful about how you approach that conversation -- that's actually what leads to a lot of confrontation and difficulty."

That wasn't a preacher's answer -- Blair not being a preacher. It was, of course, a smart political answer. With the new Tony Blair Faith Foundation he's establishing, Blair wants to encourage and mediate interfaith dialogue. Walking into such discussions having declared he wants to convert everyone who doesn't share his faith wouldn't be the most efficient approach. But it was also an answer that highlighted a key tool that every leader needs: humility. A sense of what to say when. A guidepost to knowing what your expertise is and what it is not. All too often, mishaps happen in public life when folks with bullhorns say things they don't know enough about.

You don't have to be a politician to need to take the lesson to heart. Oprah Winfrey learned this the hard way. It's a free country, and she's free to endorse Sen. Barack Obama, but choices have consequences, and there have been consequences to her Obamamania. Her favorability ratings (though still a politician's dream -- 55 percent) are at their lowest, and her negatives are at their highest. It was an odd thing for a woman who preaches empowerment to rally folks to a traditional, big-government liberal. I bet if she thought about it, she'd agree. I bet, like so many others, she got caught up in Obama's eloquence, energy and the milestone aspect of it all, and projected her hopes and dreams onto Obama. It happens to the best of us, and she'll survive.

Sir Elton John should pay attention, though. He almost understands. During a recent fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Clinton in New York, the pop-singing legend said, "The reason I'm here tonight is to play music." He, of course, didn't. Instead of just singing, he announced, "I never cease to be amazed at the misogynistic attitude of some people in this country. And I say to hell with them."

Clinton is not going down because of misogyny. Her problem is the h-word again. Humility. For years, Clinton surrogates instructed Americans that she was inevitable. The Democratic Party believed it. Republicans expected it and raised money off it.

But nothing is inevitable in American politics, as the rise of Obama and the surprises of this election cycle have made crystal clear. A little humility might have gone a long way for the Clintons this time around, and would have spared her husband some red-faced, finger-wagging rants. And Clinton some tears. Instead, she may about to be served a substantial slice of humble pie.

In the "Litany of Humility" that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says routinely, there's a line, "Deliver me ... from the desire of being loved." It's counterintuitive for a public figure, who can easily feed off attention and positive reinforcement. But, like knowing when to stop talking, it rules.