Perspectives on Raising Servants (part 1): The Service of Leadership

[This essay was first published on the Classical Conversations blog.]

For me, to write about leadership is a bit like the sportswriter who never plays sports, or the art critic who never makes art. It is all too easy to pontificate on something I know mostly by observation rather than experience. I confess, I write this so that I might be a better leader.

Bearing the Cross

The first rule of leadership is to bear one’s cross, and that cross has a great deal to do with loving one’s neighbor, for there is no true leadership without love and sacrifice. This is what we must teach.

What image do you have when you think about leadership? Maybe in your mind’s eye you see George Washington risking crossing the icy Delaware in the cold of winter, or it might be Shakespeare’s King Henry V leading his men “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…,” or maybe you see Mahatma Gandhi’s civilly disobedient march to the sea to gather salt. Closer to home you might imagine a business leader or statesman or pastor. Or perhaps you see a darker side of leadership, the grasping for power, the abuse of position. Regardless, leadership seems to be an important element in the story God is writing, and in the nature of human existence, including the establishment of societies, the morality of decision making, and even the teaching of children.

Many schools claim to train up leaders. Many commencement addresses beseech the graduates to be leaders (often, and erroneously, assuming that diplomas naturally lead to leadership). Many of our popular stories are of individuals faced with the call to leadership and their struggle to take up that responsibility. It is our nature to seek and need leaders. What we often fail to see is that true leadership is fundamentally about service and sacrifice, and not about position, power, or even education. In other words, true leaders are something other than mere figureheads or even those giving commands. One does not need to command armies to be a leader. But one cannot be a leader without first being a servant.

As Christians we follow Christ, for He is our leader, and we seek to imitate Him. As Christians we are to train up our children in the way of Christ. Thus, we must not wish that our children become leaders unless we first wish them to be like Christ. This is an important truth. True leadership is both a difficult burden and a touchstone of one’s character. Our society typically thinks of leadership as an exciting vanguard or the visible epitome of charisma rather than humble service. But great leaders are servants first and always.

Perhaps one might say leadership is morally neutral━there can be good leaders and bad leaders. In this sense leadership itself is seen as merely functional, and it’s what one does with leadership that counts. However, this is a false view of leadership. True leadership is decidedly moral. It is about the pursuit of virtue, the love of others, about seeking excellence, and it is teleological━for it seeks to help others grow and develop as they should. Thus, at its core, leadership is deeply normative.

The Characteristics of Leadership

What, then, are the basic characteristics of leadership? Consider this statement by Max DePree from his book Leadership is an Art:

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. (p. 11)

Let’s take up DePree’s four responsibilities of leadership.

Define reality

Consider the mob out of control or the group unconcerned of impending doom or the family coming apart. How important is truth in those situations? Reality is what it is, but we often have skewed understandings of reality. We bring ourselves, including our fears, worldviews, false hopes, and dreams to every situation. A leader must orient others to the truth of reality. In other words, leaders are called to provide clarity and understanding. Quickly one sees how this can be abused. Unscrupulous leaders can manipulate others for nefarious ends by championing false realities. Good leaders, however, are committed to the idea that truth and love are beholden to each other. Defining reality is a powerful and deeply moral characteristic of leadership.

Be a servant

“Servant leadership” is a well-known term, but at the heart of servant leadership is an apparent contradiction━how can one be both servant and leader at the same time? The profound truth is that one can only be a leader if one is first a servant. Any other kind of leader is hollow. Being a servant is to be committed to the the image of God in man, to the work that God is doing in and through creation, and to Man as Man. It is about the well-being of others, about the flourishing of the good, and the economy of love. The servant leader is a servant first of God and permanent things, and therefore he can be a servant of others. A leader must lay down his life for others. This takes great courage. It also takes humility.

Be a debtor

Consider the command to do unto others what you would have others do unto you. What kinds of things does this include? The list could be quite long, but it must include at least dignity and respect, listening and awareness, empathy and healing, and of course, wise action and love. Many would-be leaders seek power, which requires taking from others, and assumes a kind of creditor role (you owe me). This is the leader first, servant later (or last, or never) presumption. The servant leader, however, sees with different eyes. He asks first what he owes. When all that one has belongs to God, then one has the freedom to give. When all is God’s, then we worship God by loving others with what He has given. We owe God our lives. The genuine leader’s work begins with this understanding.

Say thank you

What is an offering to God? It is saying our thanks, giving our worship. We do this with our whole lives (or we should). But how does this look? In the day to day choices we make and actions we do, our offering to God is to give up what he has given to us━and this most often takes the form of loving and serving others. When we say thank you to those around us, to those we serve and, for some of us, to those we lead, we are declaring the joy of having participated with others in the work God has put before us. Saying thank you draws others more fully into that work, and it is another crucial part of defining reality. Begin with love, end with love.

What Leadership is Not

At this point we can get a fairly clear idea of the antithesis of leadership:

    • Leadership is not primarily about charisma. Charisma can be used, but it can be abused. Many who have charisma are not leaders. Many true leaders have little or no charisma.
    • Leadership is not primarily about being out front. Lots seek to be out front, but they are not necessarily true leaders. True leaders might even work from the back, gently pushing and encouraging.
    • Leadership is not primarily about getting others to do the work for you. Much of the time leadership is about leading by example, about rolling up one’s sleeves and doing the work so that others might follow.
    • Leadership is not primarily about knowledge. Though knowledge is important, knowledge by itself is meaningless unless used. True leaders use knowledge as a means of helping others more than themselves. Leaders are also humble about what they know, realizing that many others know more than they.
    • Leadership is not primarily about going to, or graduating from, college. College graduates do not automatically become leaders, usually the opposite. Most of the greatest leaders never received diplomas or, if they did, became leaders because of circumstances largely unrelated to their formal education.

Teaching leadership

As Christan educators we are focused on the growth and development of our students in ways that line up with their humanity. It is natural to think such an education will produce better leaders. I would hope that is true, but we must be cautious. True leadership is not birthed primarily in the classroom or through school activities, nor does it automatically grow from engaging with great stories and Socratic dialogue, and it certainly does not emerge from memorizing time lines or Latin conjugations. Though all those activities can help build a toolbox available to future leaders, leadership itself is fundamentally an orientation of one’s soul. One leads because one desires to serve. One leads because the potential virtue of others is important. One leads because Christ is our example. To lead is first to follow. Teach your students to be excellent and wise followers, then they just might become excellent and wise leaders, God willing.

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