Servant Leaders or Coercive Managers

In my work with law students and others about discerning vocation, we talk a lot about servant leadership, and I’ve written about it here in the past (for example here).

In a Lent reflection for the University of St. Thomas community yesterday, Dr. Michael Naughton, interim director of UST’s Catholic Studies Program, wrote on this subject.  Referencing Jesus’ command that “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,” he shared the distinction between servant leaders and coercive managers drawn by Bob Wahlstedt, co-founder of Reell Precision Manufacturing, here in St. Paul, MN.

Wahlsted describes the discintion as follows:

Servant leaders have followers; Coercive managers have subordinates

Servant leaders encourage debate; Coercive managers inhibit debate

Servant leaders build consensus; Coercive managers make decisions

Servant leaders ask; Coercive managers order

Servant leaders grow people; Coercive managers utilize people

Servant leaders listen to understand; Coercive managers listen to prevail

Servant leaders share credit; Coercive managers take credit

Servant leaders say “we”; Coercive managers say “I”

It is a good checklist.  Whether in the context of your work environment, your ministry or otherwise, you might reflect on what is the central tendency of your approach.

To modify the prayer Dr. Naughton ended his reflection with:  O Lord, give us all servant hearts. Give us the grace that our work serve not ourselves alone, but also the common good. Amen.


How May I Serve You?

We don’t tend to talk very much about Pope John Paul I. That is hardly surprising: He was Pope for little over a month before he died. But someone did mention him in my hearing recently. During a Mass sermon, the presider observed that whenever John Paul I met someone – whether the person was a dignatory or humble laborer – his first words were “How May I Serve you?”

How may I serve you? Sadly, this is not something we hear all the time from our leaders – not our church leaders or our political leaders.

Yet, for Christians, “how may I serve you?” is a question that should fall easily from all of our tongues, especially those of our leaders. Jesus is our prime model of servant leadership – in washing the feet of his disciples, he wanted us to understand that greatness in God’s sight is not found in how many people serve us, but rather in how faithfully we serves others. The objective taught by Jesus is not to be served, but to serve.

It may help us better serve if we remember that our service originates in our loving relationship to God. All of us – leaders and otherwise – who call ourselves disciples give ourselves over to a leadership that is greater than our own – to God. (Again, Jesus is the model here. Jesus never claimed to do anything on his own. Always he was clear that he was doing the will of the Father and that what he did he did through the power of the Father.)

Let us be leaders. But let us be servant leaders, being attentive to how we may serve those we encounter.

To Serve, Not to be Served

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark has James and John trying to secure their place at the head of the class. They approach Jesus and ask to be seated at his right and his left when Jesus comes into his glory. (I confess that James and John in this passage remind me of my siblings and I arguing in our childhood about who would get to sit in the front of the car on those rare occasions when only one parent was on the trip, leaving the other front seat open.)

The other apostles are indignant when they learn of the James and John’s power play (although I’m guessing at least some part of that indignant response has to do with the fact that they didn’t think to ask the question of Jesus themselves). And it is easy for us to make fun of James and John as well, since their blatent push for a front seat seems so embarassing.

Nonetheless, while we may not be as pushy as James and John, we are as much in need of Jesus’ response to them as they were. It is easy to think following Jesus means having a place at the head of the line. Getting to be one of the people in charge. But Jesus makes clear that those who follow him are not like “those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles, who lord it over them, and…make their authority over them felt.” Instead, explains Jesus, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

As he does on so many other occasions, Jesus turns our normal expectations on their head. The objective, in Jesus’ eyes, is not to be served, but to serve. And Jesus models that for us in so many ways. If we look at incidents like Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we come to understand that greatness in God’s sight is not found in how many people serve us, but rather in how faithfully we serves others.

I attended Sunday Mass yesterday, at the end of the Vincentian Chair for Social Justice Poverty Conference at St. John’s University. The homily added a dimension to this reading that was not present for me before. Pat Griffin, C.M., who was presiding, talked about how Mark’s Gospel begins Jesus’ public ministry with the scene involving the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, a reading that has always rubbed me (and many women, I suspect) the wrong way. Peter’s mother-in-law is ill, Jesus heals her and she immediately gets up and waits on the guys, is how that reading has always played for me. But I heard it today without the male/female element as Pat described the response of someone being touched by Jesus being one of service…of serving others. Being touched by Jesus means being drawn into an attitude of serving, rather than being served. That theme of serving others is emphasized by Mark thoughout Jesus’ public ministry, as it is powerfully in today’s Gospel.

Servant Leadership and Empowering Others

I gave a parish staff retreat earlier this week on the theme of Servant Leadership as a Model for Parish Ministry. During the first session, I spoke about several qualities of servant leadership. One of the qualities that I think extremely important for all of us involved in various ministries to keep in mind is that servant leadership involves working to empower others rather than creating situations where others are dependent on us.

We have all heard the maxim, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Empowering others means treating them with respect and dignity and encouraging their growth. The goal ultimately is to create people who don’t need us, not to encourage dependency. Our goal is effectively to work ourselves out of job.

This is something that often can be challenging. My natural tendency is toward an “I’ll do it myself” attitude. It is often more efficient to do things on my own and many times I’m convinced I’ll do a better job than someone else will. (Underneath that is, I suspect, also an element of knowing if I do it, it will get done my way and not someone else’s.) The truth, though, is that even if both of those are true, that does not necessarily mean it is always good to do the job myself.

Thus, one aspect of being a good servant leader is finding ways to involve others even where it seems easier not to do so. It also often may mean being willing to let the people we are trying to help have a say in how they are being helped. This can be challenging; we sometimes have a tendancy to think we know best. But we can’t help empower others without giving up some of the power to do it our way.