Servant leadership is the kind of leadership to which all Christians are called whenever they find themselves in charge, the boss, the supervisor, but also when they are political rulers: kings, prime ministers, presidents, and so on. Whenever given authority, it’s use is to be in service of the good, and the Christian is to offer that leadership in humility. It’s the leadership we as a community should support.
The obvious model for us in this regard is, of course, Jesus Christ. However, we should be careful to presume that simply by dint of baptism, confirmation, eucharist, we are actually conformed to his person, or that anyone exercising leadership is truly modeling their leadership on Christ. We are servants of God whether in leadership or not. So, our service to others is to be consistent with the servanthood of Jesus; that who we serve is God; what we serve is good.
I’ve spoken before of how readily so many are captured by ideology. Good then becomes defined by that and not the authentic gospel. History is filled with charismatic personalities whom people have followed, equating these individuals with the good, and slavishly following them. These are clearly two dangers. And so, we’re called to think critically about the ideas that inform political programs, to do the hard work of asking if a political vision is consistent with the gospel; if the policies, as well intended as they are apt to be, really will bring good results given what we know about human beings and their weaknesses, their predilection to sin.
We need to assess those who ask for our support, be it in the context of a national election, or in the context of our workplace or volunteer associations, like service clubs, amateur sports leagues, etc.
Now today we’re called to consider leadership in terms of a great temptation, one that Jesus is quick to warn his disciples about. The great temptation is the seeking after glory, reputation, the world’s praise or fear of you; this leads us to forget who we are and what our vocation is; that in whatever capacity we serve the community, we are working to bring people to right relationship with God through Christ.
Jesus is clearly concerned about this, and acts quickly to correct the apostles when he hears them arguing over who is greatest. These men benefit from direct and near constant contact with our Lord, and yet fail to appreciate him as a model of leadership. It’s a model they need to learn for the days when they shall be the shepherds of flocks around the ancient world.
Consider Christ’s example as described by St. Paul in writing to the church at Phillipi:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Phillipians 2.3-8)
So, you or I might be tempted to think that because of our relationship with Christ, we’re somehow better, as redeemed through Christ’s blood, a little closer to the angels than the rest of humanity; and that maybe so, but that’s not something we can use as a source of our authority. As Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels, “don’t lord it over others as the gentiles do.”
If in any regard you know yourself to have a gift, a grace received through the Holy Spirit that gives you an advantage, a special capacity, it is not to be used for your glory, but always to be offered to God’s glory.
I spoke of our patron, St. Augustine, a few weeks ago at the patronal feast, of his being a man living at the end of an age, at the end of what we call the ancient world. During his lifetime, the city of Rome was successfully assaulted and sacked over a period of three days by barbarians in the year 410 A.D. and that was traumatizing for many. People wanted to know how that could have happened.
Many argued that it was the fault of the Christians. Christianity was a persecuted faith when the empire was at its height, and the catastrophe had come with the Church ascendent and the emperor no longer sacrificing to ancient gods. So, they argued, it is clear where the fault lay. Now, any decent historian of the period will tell you that from the time of Augustus on down to the fall of the empire, good emperors were exceptional, mediocre ones the norm, and too many were simply vile; that the competition for the position of emperor led to assassinations, coups, and all sorts of turmoil at the top that meant there often was no leadership, just the bureaucracy grinding away. Spending was out of control, inflation constant, the money debased. The bureaucracy of the empire had grown huge and burdensome as a system of internal control rather than one of administration of state services. The army was often seen as more a threat than barbarians as it increasingly extorted bonuses and pay raises from the emperors.
The empire needed exceptional leadership across the board and at many levels; but it didn’t have it.
Augustine knew this well enough, and composed his famous defense of Christianity in the book, City of God.
The central problem in his estimation was this seeking after glory, celebrity, good reputation, acclaim, admiration; it was a problem from the top on down, and from this all the particular problems flowed.
Sometimes an emperor did achieve a real substantial good for the people, and was legitimately celebrated for it; but more often than not, it was the glory of bloody conquest. Julius Caesar himself admitted that his wars were not for defense of Rome, or the eradication of some great evil. They were to enhance his reputation, bring him wealth and prestige.
Even worse in a way, was that many demanded to be glorified even when there were no achievements to celebrate. They wanted the acclaim simply for making it to the top of the heap.
Augustine quoted the Roman historian Sallust who wrote that the Romans were “greedy of praise, prodigal of wealth, desirous of great glory…” (Sallust, Cat. vii).
They would sacrifice all else, curb every desire if it gained them glory.
Glory was, and for many still is, a path to immortality – ancient people naively believed that as long as the stories were told, the poems sung about their triumphs, their conquests, that somehow, they lived on through that; in one’s limited lifetime one could have the thought of it warm one’s heart.
Today we talk of political leaders writing themselves into the history books; being concerned with their legacy. On the more ordinary level of day-to-day life, we know that recognition from the public, from colleagues, the praise of one’s superiors, the tributes of subordinates, is something that many people desire – it tells them that their lives are a success, affirms them in their life choices. Such things make us feel good.
Of course, there is no immortality in any of this. And listing your awards in your obituary isn’t what gets you into heaven.
Eventually the stories are forgotten – who reads classical history, roman poetry, Virgil or Horace? The sales awards, the plaques and trophies grow dusty, and are tossed out.
So, one must be humble in the face of this reality.
However, St. Augustine also warned of false humility; the pose of the ambitious to sucker in the plebs. Like the Pharisee who paraded his virtuous generosity, as Jesus said, “he has received his reward.” They knew that trick in ancient Rome, and we know it today in the person who parades their humility before others. As St. Augustine put it, if the humility does not proceed from the Holy Spirit, the person isn’t holy or good, at best he or she is just less base, less corrupt.
Christian leadership lies not so much in the leading of the charge to take that hill; or getting your staff to finish the presentation that wins the big contract; or coaching the team to the championship – it’s in leading the men of the platoon, those people in the marketing department, the kids on the basketball team, to become something more than self-interested, self-concerned individuals, but rather outward looking people whose motivation is not the admiration of others, the praise of the worldly, but in doing something good; actually accomplishing it, not just talking about it.
Christ doesn’t “boss” people around. He does not try to control them, but instructs, “coaches” in a sense. He does not demand respect or rely on his authority. Christ does not use fear to motivate nor lead by threats—it is true he speaks of the consequence of sin being hell, but that isn’t in his instructing the disciples for their mission.
He does not use people as means to an end; the end for which he came is the salvation of God’s people.
Christ is a servant leader who inspires his followers; and he does not demand respect, but rather earns their allegiance by his good example. He does ask us to do anything he would not himself do. He is confident, and his confidence is infectious. We know he sent disciples out on their own on several occasions, trusting them to collaborate effectively with him; and when they returned, he celebrated their accomplishments and eagerly listened to their experiences, and so built them up spiritually.
When the disciples, especially Peter, fail him so dismally he does not appear after the Resurrection to lay blame, to castigate, to shame; but rather he repairs the relationship between himself and his disciples and among his followers and so gently corrects the course of their lives away from embarrassment and toward a new and greater confidence in themselves as agents of the Gospel. He is patient with them, and appreciates their limitations but even moreso knows their potential can realized in light of his Resurrection. His rising from the dead could be seen as strictly Jesus’ triumph, yet he gladly invites everyone to share in it, allows all our small struggles to be joined to his, and so be assured of success.
Now I know no one can ever be a leader so completely as Jesus Christ, but when we look at those who offer leadership, we look for a strong resemblance; when we offer ourselves as leaders, in the mirror we should see a humble servant, but also our Saviour by our side.