These are not easy times to give examples of moral leaders in today’s political and business world. It is even more difficult to give examples of servant leaders.
The thirst for power, prestige and wealth have been an obstacle to many in their pursuit of genuine leadership and this has caused them to live in a “tension of worldly vanities” as described by Pope Francis. It is challenging to live the life of a politician or a manager while living Christian values to the full. The servant leader understands the importance of serving others, and as Robert Greenleaf describes it, “the servant leader is servant first… and sharply different from who is leader first”.
Greenleaf, a former business executive, first coined the idea of ‘servant leadership’ in the 1950s to describe people who lead through listening, empathy, vision and commitment to empower and develop people and build community. The concept could have easily been inspired by Jesus Christ, a leader who changed the leadership orientation from oneself to that of others. The epitome of Jesus as a model of servant leadership is when he washes the feet of his disciples (John, Chapter 13).
The priority question asked is whether those served grow as human beings. Pope Francis emphasises that we need to include solidarity as an underlying principle of our business or life. What is the effect of leadership on the least privileged in society?
There is no one single definition of servant leadership. The base line is the impact that leadership has on people, not simply in economic terms, but in their human development. True leaders seek ways to improve the quality of life of others beyond income and profit.
True leaders seek ways to improve the quality of life of others beyond income and profit
Many confuse this sense of giving, serving and compassion as a sign of weakness. For many, leadership has to be charismatic and opportunistic, which borders on the cunning abuse of others. The accepted tenet is that in leadership, only the strong survive. However, this strength should also be the result of understanding, empathy and compassion. In the story of the plot against Joseph, it is Reuben, the eldest brother, motivated by a sense of responsibility of being the first, that persuades his brothers not to kill him. (Genesis 37:19-29).
Another characteristic of servant leadership is that of self-sacrifice and restraint, illustrated by Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep (John 10:11). Restraint and humility and very difficult to find today. Many are impressed by Pope Francis’ modesty in his uttering to everyone “Pray for me”.
We can learn a great deal from Pope Francis on servant leadership. It is issues that matter, not positions and personalities. Go down to the essentials, not the politicking and positioning. Pope Francis makes continuous reference to the perils of clericalism.
Some hints on applied servant leadership:
• Expand the sense of value. Are leaders empowering others in encouraging their creativity and drive for innovation, ensuring that they feel self-fulfilled and not frustrated?
• Involve as many people as necessary and empower people. Are leaders giving time to develop others around them rather than suffocating them with their big personalities and personal strategies?
• Are leaders preoccupied with personal visibility and recognition?
• Know when your time is up. Leaders serve for only a season. Some seasons can be long, others can be short. But, leaders understand that their time is up to move on and make space for others.
We have to understand that we, as Christian-inspired leaders, are “imperfect servants trying to be faithful” to God, to ourselves and to others, and that true freedom can only be found when we serve others.