Power Under Control: A Panda’s Lesson in Humility

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There it was, completely helpless except for its piercing cry. In 1999, Bai Yun, a seven-year-old giant panda, gave birth to the first panda cub born in the U.S. through artificial insemination. But would the cub survive? Many panda cubs in those days died when they were infants. With the big size difference between the mother and cub (220 pounds vs. four ounces), too often the little cub would be crushed by an inexperienced mother. As I watched on the closed-circuit monitor with the keeper and a researcher that night, I wondered: How could a mother panda ever sleep and not roll over on her cub?


Bai Yun soon answered that question. And the answer was a lesson in power under control. As Bai Yun was about to fall asleep, she lay on her side and positioned the tiny cub on the inside of her forearm. It rested right next to her nostrils and inches from her powerful jaws. That position allowed her to keep the cub warm and in view. She could sense movement or hear the cub cry if it fell off her forearm. This clever tactic protected the cub from Bai Yun’s power and weight. Bai Yun slept soundly. The cub was safe and years later became a successful mother herself.

Humility is power under control 

Animals are not capable of being humble, per se. Still, Bai Yun’s extraordinary maternal behavior illustrates an important characteristic of humility. She gently restrained and controlled herself for the benefit of her cub. The cub's well-being was her priority. In a similar way, humble leaders find ways to control their use of power for the benefit of others. Their followers trust them and grow into capable leaders themselves.

What are some ways servant leaders can practice genuine humility and keep their power under control?

Stand in authority but resist using it 

There’s nothing wrong with being an authority. If you have that role and calling, embrace it; your leadership is needed. Even so, humble leaders are circumspect about using that authority. They acknowledge people’s free will and work to influence rather than coerce. 

Deflect attention and share credit with others 

We tend to think highly of the leader who gives rather than takes credit for a team effort. Cheering the team on, if done without selfish intent, works to bolster morale and builds trust, loyalty, and confidence.

Choose to see the “big picture” 

Seeing the broad, organizational perspective and supporting other departments requires unselfish thinking. Using intimidation and power to strong-arm other people and departments is power out of control, i.e., arrogance rather than humility.

Never use power for personal gain or to dominate others 

Having a position of power grants leaders the opportunity and responsibility to get things done. That’s a good thing. Too often, though, leaders wield their power for personal gain and to control others. That tempting, inward-directed path of power usually ends badly for both the leader and those they lead. 

To do what’s good and right for the long term, therefore, humble leaders must learn to control their use of power. This is not a sign of weakness. Indeed, humility of this order requires a good deal of strength, assertiveness and self-control. Power tends to cloud and corrupt our thinking. But leaders, even the most powerful ones, can steer clear of this trap by being alert to the tendency, being humble and controlling their use of power. 

People often ask me, of all the animals I’ve worked with, which is my favorite. Bai Yun has to be at the top of my list. She was special to me in many ways. But mostly, like a humble leader, Bai Yun was able to control her considerable power for the good of another. Call it what you will, but for me, it was a great lesson in humility. 

What leaders have you worked with who held positions of power and were able to keep that power under control? Were they effective? Why or why not?

Read more about how to lead with humility in Upside Down Leadership: A Zoo Veterinarian’s Journey to Becoming a Servant Leader. Go to shopzoo.com.

Curious to know more about servant leadership? Join us for our Servant Leadership Conference 2019 on March 4 and 5 at the Westin Resort and Spa in Carlsbad Ca. Learn more here.

by Don Janssen, DVM