Servant Leadership

Alexander Hamilton, author of The Federalist Papers, was a champion of American democracy, yet he wasn’t quite sure that the average American should be trusted to decide who should become President of the United States.  Hamilton believed it was far better for people simply to vote for informed, knowledgeable and wise people who could then be trusted to choose the President. He was, therefore, a champion of the Electoral College, a body whose role was to make sure that the American people didn’t make a mistake.  Rather than directly electing the President by popular vote, voters actually vote for electors representing a certain candidate, and it is those electors sitting as the Electoral College who actually elect the President.  I suspect most Americans today would be surprised to learn that those electors are not required to vote for the person they were elected to represent.  Rather, they are supposed to vote for the person they think would make the best President (in other words, they are to serve the common good).  In practice, of course, electors these days always vote for the person they were elected to represent.  And the Electoral College does serve another function, which is to balance out the power dynamic between more populated states and smaller ones.  Nevertheless, the Electoral College system owes its existence, at least in part, to the fact that some of the drafters of the Constitution were a little uncomfortable leaving the selection of the President up to the sum total of the votes of the average guys on the street, who might choose someone based on, well, a less sensible set of criteria.

So why am I going on about Alexander Hamilton and the Electoral College?  Well, more and more it seems to me that Hamilton’s discomfort with leaving the Presidency in the direct hands of the American electorate was perhaps founded on a fear that has become all too true:   that politicians, in an effort to insure that they get re-elected, will stop exercising genuine leadership and instead simply become people who enact the narrative that they perceive to be held by the majority of their constituents.  In the modern era of instant polling and information collection, those who exercise leadership in government are not only able to keep their fingers on the pulse of the voters back home, but on just about every other vital sign, as well.  And this ability, it seems to me, coupled with a culture that says the most important thing is to get re-elected the next time around, leads to an abandonment of principled leadership.   The biggest mark of this abandonment is the infamous flip-flop:  when a politician changes his or her position (sometimes a position held consistently for years) because the polls are saying that the position is no longer as popular.

The flip-flop is often justified on the basis of service to the public:  if my job is to serve my constituents, then I should understand what most of them want me to do, and then do that.  After all, I am their representative, right?  No.  That is not what servant leadership is about.   And neither politicians nor voters should assume that it is.

Leadership is about having a vision, rooted in a set of core values and principles, and doing all that you can do to make that vision a reality.  And the desire to make that vision a reality comes from the conviction that the vision itself serves the greater good of those whom you are called to lead.

There is an episode in Mark’s Gospel in which two of Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus to give them positions of privilege:  “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  The other 10 disciples hear this request, and they start arguing.

So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’  (Mark 10:42-45)

This statement by Jesus is a statement about servant leadership.  I grant that the middle section, where Jesus talks about being a servant and that whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all, could be used to justify the idea that a leader should simply do what most of those he or she is leading want to see done.  I would point out, however, that Jesus doesn’t say “be the slave of the majority” but “be the slave of all”.   At the end of the passage, which connects to the life of Jesus himself, he says that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”   If we see the way Jesus himself exercises leadership, he does not do so based on the majority opinion of his community.   He takes no polls or surveys.  If he had done, he would have become the revolutionary guerilla fighter against Roman oppression that most people wanted him to be.   Instead, Jesus is unwavering in his commitment to a vision that says what is good for all people is what is good for the most vulnerable members of society.  And he acts consistently in harmony with the values and principles in which this vision is rooted.  Oh, and he gets crucified.

That’s the part of servant leadership that is frightening.  To have the courage to articulate a vision that serves the common good but may not be popular, and to act always in harmony with the values and principles that inform such a vision might mean that a politician would end up being electorally crucified:  he or she may not be reelected.   On the other hand, during the time that politician is in office, he or she might end up doing a great deal to serve the common good.  And, that politician might gain something that is in very short supply when it comes to the way most Americans view their political leaders these days:  respect.

When we voters go to the polls to elect leaders, we should be voting for leaders whose vision, values and principles we respect.  Those elected, the vast majority of whom in this country claim some form of allegiance to some kind of Christian faith, should then proceed to do what they were elected to do:  to actually lead, based on the vision, values and principles they articulated when they asked us to elect them.   And personally, I think they should follow the example of Jesus, and never take a poll again.  They should be guided by their vision, they should serve the common good.  History has shown over and over again that what is in our best interest is not necessarily popular.  Jesus believed that something was right when it was rooted in a kind of passionate compassion directed toward the most vulnerable.  But the most vulnerable are rarely popular.

That kind of servant leadership may not get a person re-elected some day.  But as Jesus also makes clear, politics is not supposed to be about holding onto power.  Politics is supposed to be about serving others, about being a “slave to all“.  Which is another way of saying that it is supposed to be about serving the common good, even when it isn’t popular.

One thought on “Servant Leadership

  1. Oh would that our politicians and leaders be granted the CERTAINTY of what the “truth” is, and “what is best for the public” as Jesus was. Then there would not be the self-doubt, or the evolution of positions that our politicians, mere humans, experience. Nor would they be subject to the changing, and maybe erroneous desires of the public that they were hired to represent. Alas, the Lord didn’t grant such certainty to any politician, or any of the rest of us, either.

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