A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when others obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.
-Lao-Tzu, China, c. 550 BC
“Servant.” “Leader.” Few words in the English language seem more mutually exclusive. Leaders give orders. Servants take them. Leaders have followers. Servants have masters. Leaders are powerful. Servants are powerless. Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to have a servant.
But are they really so opposite?
In his classic novel, Journey to the East, Herman Hesse tells the story of a band of travelers sojourning across the south of Europe. Their journey is sponsored by a religious order that has provided them with not only all of the necessary equipment but also a rather unobtrusive servant by the name of Leo. The trip goes well. They make good progress. They become good friends. On the road and around the fire, there seems to be magic about the group.
Then one day Leo disappears. No one is particularly concerned. After all, he was only a servant. Soon, however, cracks begin to appear in the fragile bond that holds the group together. Tasks go undone. Emotions fray. Soon the music around the campfire is replaced by stony silence. When no one is able to repair the damage, the group simply breaks up. Unable to continue the journey for lack of leadership, the narrator of the story, one of the travelers, decides to join the religious order that sponsored the journey. He returns to the order’s headquarters to begin his initiation.
There he finds Leo and discovers that their servant is actually the leader of the entire order. Upon reflection, the narrator realizes that Leo had really been their leader all along. He was the source of the magic in their group. Yet, if he had asserted his position as leader of the order, the group probably would have rejected him outright. However, by seeking to meet their needs the group had willingly made him their leader without even realizing it. By becoming their servant he had become their leader, not by position, but by influence. Character had triumphed over authority: service over position.
This is the paradox of power that has troubled mankind since the days of Lao-Tzu. There is something in the very nature of leadership that implies service. True leaders, those who people follow because they want to not because they have to, always begin with and return to the needs of their followers. As James MacGregor Burns states in his monumental work, Leadership: “The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.”
Leadership is essentially a transaction. Followers give their leaders power in exchange for service. We simply will not follow someone who does not meet our needs.
The American political system bears testimony to this. We call our elected officials “Public Servants.” If they serve us well, we re-elect them. If they serve us poorly, we elect others in their place.
Business practice bears this out well. Companies who serve their customers well are highly rewarded with return business and referrals. Companies that do not meet the needs of their clients soon find themselves filing for bankruptcy.
Hollywood creatives are painfully aware of this process. The best screenplay ever written won’t last a week in theatres if it fails to touch a chord in the hearts, minds, or funny bones of a significant audience.
Faith communities are subject to this paradox as well. People join churches and follow various teachers and rabbis because they sense their needs are being met. They “vote” for their favorite spiritual leader with their attendance, their giving and (in the burgeoning religious marketplace) their buying. Churches that truly meet the needs of their congregations grow large and prosperous. Their pastors become famous. Their methods and teaching become models for others.
But is this all there is to servant leadership? If so, then anyone can do it. Just give people what they want and you’re a leader. But are you? Really? Is the ability to attract a following by promising and (sometimes) delivering what people want all there is to transformational leadership? If it is, then we are in real trouble.
The paradox of power is the exact process that “pseudo celebrities” currently use to manipulate public opinion for their own purposes. (See, Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God.) “The pseudo celebrity “develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality from those of their competitors in the public arena.” Rather than serving as heroic celebrities who actually meet the needs of others through self-sacrificing service, pseudo celebrities prey upon the perception that they are meeting the needs of their followers when their real goal is to meet their own needs to sell more product, enhance their fame, etc. As I stated in the Paparazzi post, “In a society hungering for close personal relationships, the pseudo celebrity system delivers pseudo-relationships with people we feel connected to but have never met.” Media outlets create the illusion of accessibility and relationship we crave, without actually delivering the goods. With enough Twitter chatter anyone can be a cultural leader. Why bother to actually accomplish anything for my “followers”?
Best-selling business author Jim Collins warns that this pseudo celebrity approach to leadership is a cancerous growth on the future of transformative leadership in America, from the pulpit to the boardroom. Pseudo celebrities are not only “famous for being famous,” they are paid for being famous, and revered for being famous regardless of their providing any actual value to the lives of others or the organizations they lead. They score “covers of magazines, bestselling autobiographies, massive compensation packages—despite the fact that their long-term results failed to measure up.”
Collins prophecies: “If we allow the celebrity rock-star model of leadership to triumph, we will see the decline of corporations and institutions of all types… These leaders were ambitious for themselves, and they succeeded admirably on this score, but they failed utterly in the task of creating an enduring great company. Smart people instinctively understand the dangers of entrusting our future to self-serving leaders who use our institutions… whether in the corporate or social sectors… to advance their own interests.”
But are we really so smart? The rampant tragic decline of American business, banking, government, education, church and media enterprises stems largely from the ascendancy of self-centered pseudo celebrity leaders. Like Israel during the reign of Saul, self-centered leadership wears the crown, while Davidic servant leadership is banished from the halls of power.
Can we learn to discern the difference between pseudo celebrity leadership and heroic servant leadership? I believe we can. In fact, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth provides both clear teaching regarding servant leadership and a compelling example of living it out.
Continue reading next post in series: LOST Lessons of Servant Leadership