Seeking servant leaders
When you were a kid, did you ever play the game ‘follow the leader’? I remember that the goal of it all was to watch the appointed leader and do exactly what he or she did.
When we get in a complicated or tight spot today as adults, we wish we could find someone to be ‘the leader’ and tell us what to do. We complain about the inability of Congress to do anything, make decisions or work out our problems. We fall prey to groups that tell us they have all the answers, if we will just follow them.
We claim to be, as President Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg Address, a country ‘of the people, by the people and for the people.’ But how many of us get informed on the issues and vote or take action to affect change?
This is the start of a serious campaign season for important elected officials. What kind of a leader are we really looking for?
I attended an international conference that focused on the idea of ‘servant leadership.’ It is a concept as old as mankind but organized most recently by a man named Robert K. Greenleaf.
He wrote: ‘The servant-leader is servant first. ‘ It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. ‘ Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. ‘ That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. ‘ 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. Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?’
You might want to check out the current organization and activities by visiting www.greenleaf.org.
In preparation for the conference, I thought back to leaders I have known through the years. Standing out from all the rest was a woman I met in an ‘unofficial settlement’ in South Africa. They called her Auntie Murrieta. Her home was in what we would describe as a ‘shanty town.’ It was made of pieces of used tin covered by a roof held down with rocks. She told me right off that she was the official leader of this settlement. Since I am used to political campaigns such as we have in the United States, I asked her what she had said she would do if she were elected. Her immediate response surprised me. ‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘I never tell people what I want to do. I ask them what they need.’
The main room of her tiny shack had a long table that was heaped with used clothing. While I was there, a mother came in and rummaged through the pile looking for a pair of pants for her son. It was the kind of activity we usually see at rummage sales or clothes closets for welfare recipients in our country.
Murrieta showed me two paper certificates that stated she had leadership training. They seemed to give her the confidence that she could handle the needs of the community. Her elected office made her a medical provider for more than 400 families. She showed me an old cigar box that served as a first-aid kit. The scant supplies rattled as she took them off the shelf.
She told me that housing was the No. 1 issue the families wanted her to address. She was proud of four concrete homes that had already been completed. As her home had no electricity, water or heat, I asked her why she didn’t live in one of them. She said words that still ring in my head: ‘I will move into the last house that is built.’
This was one smart human being I was talking to. I asked her why she stayed in the settlement, even though she had skills that could get her away from all this discomfort. She responded: ‘God planted me here.’ She had a purpose, a plan, and she had hope. Her eyes sparkled as she described her place in this community.
Once, during a conflict between gangs in the settlement, she rushed out to stop the fight. As she stood between the angry gangs, she cried, ‘If you are going to shoot each other, you will have to shoot me first.’ I have heard it said that most people aren’t afraid of dying. They are afraid of living a life without purpose. Murrieta Cookman of Soweto, South Africa, has a purpose. She is a servant leader.
I don’t want leaders to have to die for me, but I do want them to know who they are leading and what that means for today’s activities and long-term goals. In this campaign season, I am looking for such people to serve our state and nation. When I listen to their campaign rhetoric, I am going to keep Murrieta Cookman’s words ringing in my ears. Better yet, when I assess my own thoughts and actions, I am going to try to follow her lead.