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Grandma Leadership 2.0: Too Big for Your Britches


Vera W. Holmes knew about Level 5 Leadership before Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, (New York: Harper Business, 2001) was born. The Level Five leader is an admixture of genuine personal humility and fierce professional will (see Harvard Business Review, July, 2005). His findings, over years of studying companies that went from good to great, revealed that the number one element for such transformation was the corportate vision and organization of the Level 5 leader. It was a smackdown of the old autocratic, dictatorial style of the manu- factoring economy. The service world that Collins studied and depicted revealed a new kind of leader, one whose personal humility and drive aimed the organization higher.

When her grandchildren acted a little uppity, Mama Holmes would say, "You're getting a little too big for your britches". She was reminding us that there's no place for arrogant pridefulness in building and maintaining relationships out there in the real world. She was putting us in our place.

The Urban Dictionary defines "too big for your britches" as that time "when your assumed position is slightly larger than the actual position you belong in". In a world where children spend the money, decide vacation and down-time destinations, and are the aim of marketing and sales pitches, to talk about them sitting in the bosses seat at home is a little on the silly side. And, that, in my opinion, is a subject for another day when we're talking the dynamics of family life. I do have thoughts about that and I'll be glad to share them in the proper venue. Pride and arrogance are on the the agenda today and I'm reminded how ahead of her times our grandmother was to remind us that they do not work in fully functioning human relationships. When she said, "you're getting too big for your britches" she was underscoring the need to develop humility in the lives of those who will lead us. It was a homespun reminder that we were not the center of the universe. In that world, the universe was the three small community rooms in her little house---living room, den, and kitchen area---where we all gathered. Mama Holmes knew we'd be in a mess if we we all assembled there for family events and one of us tried to assume control of the whole family.

OK, humans are self-centered. Not until some rival deals with us in grade school do we actually discover the trouble associated with our love for self. Somebody has to knock us down a notch to remind us that we must learn to accommodate other people into our life plan. And, so, growing up involves lessons in learning our place, submitting to authority, balancing life with actions fitted to our personality while giving other people room to function too. This is all to say that personal humility isn't always natural to the human species. We're born in love with ourselves and we must navigate the rough currents of relationships as we grow and develop. Failure to do so often leaves us alone in life.

Believing that all truth is God's truth, Mama Holmes' and Jim Collins' understanding of what makes successful relationships happen are straight from the lessons of Scripture. It is true that unbelievers can learn humility and demonstrate a humble heart to the people in their various associations. I mean, it's good good psychology or business sense or people skills to know how to get along in this dog-eat-dog world. Occasionally we revert to our default setting of self- absorption and outgrow our place at the time. But, usually there's someone out there to stand up to our ways and remind us of the need for a more reasonsed, giving approach. Even outside the Christian community leaders are discovering the need for persoal likeability, a soft touch with others, and a humble approach. They are winning traits for leadership in these times.

In believers, the motivation is different. If we are to be his disciples, that is, having the disciplines of his character shaped in us, the beginning step involves getting off our high horse and denying self. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). It's not a lesson far down the road of discipleship, or even a secondary step in the journey of our spiritual growth. It's step one. Our walk with him begins right there, at the point of self-denial, or selfie-denial as the young guys say. Later, in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, there's an additional reminder of his character. To the Philippians he wrote, "...he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8). Once again, the model for the Christian life is humility and loweness, the kenosis of Christ that Paul introduced. Over and over in Scripture are the promises God made to people who placed God first, and others second.

Mama Holmes was a soft touch for the grandchildren most of the time. Me, Mike, Christie, Greg, Larry, Jana, Scott, Barry, Brad, and Phillip knew she could be tough when she needed to be. But, she also knew the graces of a humble heart, ways to help people in need, and what works in building a business or a family or relationships with the neighbors. In her quiet and simple way she knew how to communicate that to us, the little disciples entrusted to her care. And, she taught us to value others and never get too big for our britches!

It's another great lesson of Grandma Leadership 2.0. Pass it on.

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