To lead people, walk beside them ... As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate ... When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves!' — Lao-tsu
The quote from Lao-tsu reminds me of a similar conversation I often had with my ex-husband, usually when
we were dining in a nice restaurant. Bob was speaking not of leaders, but of waiters, “you never see a good waiter. It’s as if the water appears at your side by magic. A good waiter knows that he is not to be noticed.”
Perhaps Bob and Lao-tsu have more in common than they might have thought, for they both speak to the servant model of leadership, a popular catch-phrase in the church.
But what does it mean to be a ‘servant leader’? Most often, Christians point to Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet on the night of the Last Supper, and rightly so. Jesus was giving his followers a show-and-tell lesson in servanthood from a leader’s perspective: nothing is so demeaning, that I would not do it for you and have you do it for others.
But what about church leaders, and ministers in particular? What does it look like to be a servant-leader in the middle of a committee meeting? When listening to a congregant’s crisis? When stuck behind a slow driver in the fast lane (who just might also be a congregant)?
Can it all be simply boiled down to the aphorism “lead by example”?
I wish I knew.
Most of the moments in my ministry that bring us all closer together aren’t what I think of as leadership moments. Mostly, it’s when I’m sitting with someone who has just said good-bye to a loved one or when I’m listening to someone’s troubles, or when we’re laughing in the kitchen together, that I feel the unifying action of the Holy Spirit in our midst. And that doesn’t seem like leadership. That feels like being present.
Perhaps being present is part of being a leader . . . just the very ordinary act of showing up. All I know for certain is that I am forgiven much when I just show up.
But back to Lao-tsu. Being invisible feels counter-intuitive to being a good leader. Don’t people have to see who or what they’re following? And maybe that’s it – it’s the ‘what’ that matters; not the ‘who’. I used to get quite irritated whenever someone would offer an idea or thought that they had gotten from me as if it were their own. But I have come to realize that we all do this – take on board the thoughts of others and incorporate them into our own fabric, seldom realizing the origin of the thought from elsewhere.
Maybe it’s akin to seed planting. The garden spends little time wondering where the seeds came from. The garden takes the seeds on and nurtures them into maturity. It matters that I plant the seeds, but it does not matter that the garden know it.
If I were to offer my own ‘Top Ten’ on good leadership, coming more from my own failures than successes, they would probably be:
1. Do no harm. It’s axiomatic, but leaving folks worse off than better for the encounter is abuse, not leadership. And the excuse, “this is for your own good” is just that – an excuse for my own failings.
2. Talk less, listen more. I really fail at this one – a lot.
3. Roll up your sleeves. Be willing to do anything that you ask others to do, especially the dirty, footwashing, kind of stuff that no one wants to do but has to be done.
4. Love, love, love. I hear too many ministers speak of congregations for whom they have precious little love. People know when they are not cherished. To fail to love those whom we serve does great harm.
5. Share. To refuse to delegate is to refuse to share – it’s an act of selfishness, not selflessness.
6. Show up. Be present to people. See them – really see them.
7. Admit what you can’t or won’t do. There really are some things I cannot do. And there really are some thing I just will not do. I will not eat shrimp. It’s silly, but it’s true. I won’t eat it to please you. I won’t eat it to be polite. I won’t eat it. And it’s really o.k. to say so.
8. Admit when you’re wrong. We all make mistakes. And people know yours. What they don’t know is whether you know them or not.
9. Name the conflict and deal with it. Conflict avoidance is deadly. The conflict doesn’t go away by ignoring it. We all know this. But, oh, the lengths to which we will go to avoid dealing with it. In 12 Step programs, there’s a slogan: Some are sick, some are sicker than others, and some are as sick as they want to be. To avoid conflict is to be as sick as we want to be, to wallow in the misery of our own dysfunction and fear.
10. Know when it’s time to go. The hardest thing for me to grasp has been that I am not always the solution to someone’s problem. It’s much easier to blame them (“they really don’t want to change”) or to avoid the person or situation. But years ago in another profession, I learned the value of letting go. A client had become difficult to work with and we ended up avoiding each other. I kept trying and trying and getting nowhere and then I gave up, but I didn’t let go, until finally I realized that nothing I did would resolve our situation and so I severed the relationship, over her objection. Months later, I saw her. She literally ran up to me. I was frightened that she might hit me, but instead, she threw her arms around me and thanked me and let me know how she had been able to move on and resolve the problem that brought her to me in the first place. With absolutely no help from me, she was able to do what she needed to do. We were both better off for having parted ways. It’s humbling to realize that I might not have what you need. But it’s important: otherwise, we end up right back at #1, doing harm where we had only the best of intentions.
May the seeds grow, but may my footprints be invisible.