LOST Lessons of Leadership 2: Jack’s Position of Power – Service for the Common Good

Part 2 of series, LOST Lessons of Leadership: What ABC’s Hit Series Taught Me About Heroic Character.

Instead of treating leadership like a gun to meet his own needs, Jack is using leadership as a tool to serve others

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

In contrast to the “asshole” style of leadership evidenced by Sawyer and his gun (see, LOST lesson #1), the first season of LOST open’s with a compelling story of a radically different approach: service. In perhaps the best seven-minute opening in the history of action-adventure television, Dr. Jack Shephard awakens to find himself alone and injured in a bamboo grove on a deserted island. Ignoring his own injuries, Jack rushes to the crash site and jumps into action as a servant leader. He tends to the wounded, brings a woman back from the dead, performs jungle surgery, leads the exploratory party to look for their jetliner’s transceiver, and plunges into the water to save a drowning woman. 

Despite a back story that would cause many to eschew the heroic, Jack functions not so much like a positional leader with the gun, but rather as a servant leader instead for the entire group.  

If you want to see exactly what I mean, you’ll have to sign in to ABC to watch the first ten minutes of the pilot below. (Also available on Hulu.)

The Nature of Servant Leadership

“Servant.”

“Leader.” 

Few words 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? Jesus told his followers that true spiritual power comes not in seeking a position over others, but rather in a position under them.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” -Mark 10:43-44

The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.

How these words must have shocked Jesus’ disciples. They must have shook their heads to clear their ears.  Surely they could not have heard correctly.  A servant in Jesus’ day was the lowest of professions.  He performed the most menial of household tasks.  A slave was lower still.  “He had no rights at law and could demand no privileges …his money, his time, his future, his marriage were all, strictly speaking, at the disposal of his master.”[1]

But there was no mistake: Jesus selected His words very carefully. A servant is someone who lives to meet the needs of his master.  A servant leader lives for the needs of his followers.  The basis for greatness in the kingdom of God is not how many people serve you, but rather, how many people you serve.

The authoritarian leader uses people to help him gain his position of authority. The servant leader uses his position of authority to help him meet the needs of others.  “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant–first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”[2] The more needs he meets, the better the servant he is and, therefore, the better leader.

The Power of Servant Leadership

If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.

This is the secret power of a servant leader:  people want to follow them. They sense that she genuinely cares about their well-being. 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.”[3]

This is the secret to Jack’s leadership. He really isn’t trying to lead.  He is trying to serve. The group gradually gravitated to following him precisely because they realized that he was acting with their best interests in mind. When the group needs medical care, Jack is there. When they need fresh water, Jack finds it. When tensions in the group finally boil over into a fight, it is Jack who intervenes in what becomes one of the most famous speeches of the series:

It’s been six days and we’re all still waiting. Waiting for someone to come. But what if they don’t? We have to stop waiting. We need to start figuring things out. …Everyman for himself is not going to work. …Last week most of us were strangers, but we’re all here now. And God knows how long we’re going to be here. But if we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.” 

The Goal of Servant Leadership

Throughout the rest of season one (don’t get me started talking about subsequent seasons), Jack continues to cast vision for the survivor’s future by inviting them into a story of collective servanthood. He functions as what business writer Jim Collins refers to as a “Level 5 Leader.” Collins studied top companies in order to discern why some were able to grow from being “good” companies into “great,” while others faltered. Not surprisingly, servant leadership was key. In Collins words:

Level 5 leaders are differentiated from other levels of leaders in that they have a wonderful blend of personal humility combined with extraordinary professional will. They are very ambitious; but their ambition, first and foremost, is for the company’s success. [5]

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.

Like many Level 5 Leaders, Jack hasn’t sought and doesn’t even want to lead. In fact, it takes Jack more than a few episodes to even realize that he has become the group’s de facto leader.  When he insists to John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) that he can’t lead because, ”I’m not a leader!”  Locke can only reply, “Yet they treat you like one.”

And why not? Instead of treating leadership like a gun to meet his own needs, Jack is using leadership as a tool to serve others. Like Jesus, who took up the tools of a household servant—a basin and a towel—in order to wash the feet of his first followers; Jack uses his medical training and innate leadership skills to wash the wounds, and souls of the survivors of Oceanic 815.

By rejecting the path of lording it over the group and choosing to take a position under the survivors, Jack has become a true servant leader..

But is that all there is to servant leadership? If only it were so simple…

Next: LOST Lessons of Leadership 3: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Authoritarian Leaders Learn to Serve.

 

See also:

LOST Lessons of Leadership: What ABC’s Hit Series Taught Me About Heroic Character.

Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Higher Education Responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Icons of Heroic Celebrity: TV Writer Chris Easterly Guest Posts on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

The Paradox of Power: A Cure for the Cancer of Pseudo Celebrity?

 


Notes

[1] Michael Green, Called to Serve (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1964), p. 19.

[2] James M. Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 2010), p. 461.

[3] Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness: 25th Anniversary Edition (New York:  Paulist Press, 2002),  p. 13

[4] Sarah Powell, “Taking Good to Great: An Interview with Jim Collins.”  See also, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001).

[5] At least for the remainder of Season 1.