“I think baking cookies is equal to Queen Victoria running an empire,” Martha Stewart once said. “There’s no difference in how seriously you take the job.” Stewart may have been being facetious, or simply pointing out that we can pour great effort and heart into anything. But, the reality is that some jobs are more demanding than others, especially jobs that bear the burden of leadership. If we want to be leaders like Christ, how do we understand the purpose of leadership? Does it have anything to do with the notion of servant leadership? For Christian leaders, what makes bearing the weight of responsibility and decision-making worthwhile, even noble and exhilarating?
The Leader’s Wings of Responsibility
Let’s investigate more deeply. The leader is necessarily set apart; he has special powers and a unique role in the community. Often he goes first: He is the guide navigating uncharted territory, and there are not clear precedents for the decisions he faces. Often he is responsible for protecting the dignity, rights, and wages of many people. St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, used a powerful image of wings to describe the path of discipline necessary in the spiritual life. This image could also be used to describe the temptation to feel leadership as a burden:
Is the burden heavy? No, a thousand times no! Those obligations which you freely accepted are wings that raise you high above the vile mud of your passions. Do the birds feel the weight of their wings? If you were to cut them off and put them on the scales you would see that they are heavy. But can a bird fly if they are taken away from it? It needs those wings and it does not notice their weight…
The heavy wings of responsibility a leader is given lifts him up and sets him apart from others—precisely for the sake of service and unity.
Called to Communion: Leadership at the Service of Unity
The purpose for the separation of the leader is actually for unity: A leader is set apart not to be tyrannical or domineering, but to empower those around him, creating a more cohesive community. A leader is set apart in order to serve the good of the community – to protect and promote the common good of his followers. To a great extent, this is expressed in the notion of servant leadership, popularized by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970s.
In a 1970 essay entitled, “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf wrote that the servant leader is differentiated by how he serves, unites, and grows the community to which he belongs. The best test of effective servant-leadership, according to Greenleaf, is whether those served grow as persons. As Greenleaf asked, “Do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
A Christian leader is by nature a servant leader, with a strong sense of the solidarity of the human family—we’re all in this together— as well as the importance of subsidiarity— we should be managing human affairs on the lowest effective level. Equipped with these principles, the Christian uses his leadership, his being set apart, to unite the minds, talents, and hearts of those around him, and to help those he serves grow as persons.
Christian Leadership: Just how does the Leader Serve the Community?
Let’s look at three particular ways the leader is called to serve the good of his community:
Serving the Divine
First, the Christian leader serves the spiritual thriving of his followers: their openness to the divine. He sees the priority of personhood over profit, and refuses to violate the spiritual capacity of the person by unjust work arrangements or a crushing emphasis on efficiency. By listening and asking intuitive questions, the leader invites those he works with into collaboration and empowers them to greater creativity and moral imagining.
Serving the Intellectual
Second, the leader serves the intellectual thriving of his community: the vitality of their minds. He does this by nurturing creative places for workers, where they do not feel boxed in or caged up. He creates participatory structures, where people’s unique skills, gifts, and talents can unfold. Realizing the principle of subsidiarity, the Christian leader goes beyond delegation to the power of autonomy. Rather than saying “I’m letting you make this decision, but I can take it back at any point,” he finds opportunities to say, “I’m giving you this decision; it’s in your hands; I fully trust you with it.”
Serving the Moral Good
Third, the leader serves the moral excellence of his community: the unleashing of wills for the good. The Christian leader recognizes in each person a subject who is always capable of giving himself to others. The leader encourages that self-gift, and models it himself. According to Greenleaf, a servant leader uses the powers of persuasion and example to create alternatives and options in the workplace, empowering autonomous choices among his staff. Whereas coercion is intentionally manipulative, servant leadership is an exercise of confidence that respects the power and dignity of workers.
George Weigel describes how St. John Paul II illustrated such Christian leadership that respected the moral responsibility of others. Weigel writes:
As one of his friends and penitents put it to me, “…We’d talk for hours but I never heard him [John Paul II] say, ‘I’d advise you to . . . . ’ He’d throw light on a problem. But then he would always say, ‘You have to decide.’” Helping his young friends to see the good and choose it as a matter of habit—growth in virtue—was the Wojtyła pastoral method.
We have to decide, and we have to let others decide for themselves, and that’s a good thing! We have the freedom to choose to love, to cultivate friendship, to work to our fullest potential— and no one can make those decisions for us. So, servant leaders remind others of this beautiful and quintessentially human reality.
The Long-Eared Servant Leader
There’s something else the leader who serves must keep in mind. There is a story that a particular tribe held a tradition of carving into its chief’s totem a rabbit with long ears. This animal was assigned to the chief as a reminder of his special role as leader, which was first of all to listen. To identify the available resources in his community (people, talents, gifts) and how those can be used for the common good, the leader must be a careful listener, adopting an attitude of receptivity first. Only then can he see, judge, and act rightly.
If we want to know reality as it is, and if we believe that continuing to learn is important, then we will have a passion for listening, and this will make us better leaders, better able to bridge the gap between our ideas and experiences and those of others. After listening, we can better use our imagination to find words and experiences that will connect with our audience, encouraging them to their best creativity and fullest use of potential.
At Your Service
So, leadership is for the sake of service. The Christian leader is by nature a servant leader, with a unique responsibility to listen to his surroundings and identify the available resources, empowering those in the community to greater service toward each other. Servant leadership is not weak or less confident leadership. It is realistic leadership: It realizes the importance of others gifts as well as one’s own, and artfully guides those gifts together to build up the whole. By doing this, great leaders serve the spiritual thriving, intellectual thriving, and moral excellence of their community. In this synergy of talents and mutual empowerment, the best plans flourish.
For further thoughts on servant leadership and related topics, check out Robert K. Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader.