Monday, April 16, 2012


One of the most powerful ceremonies we Anglicans still observe, even though Luther called it an act of “ostentatious humility,” is that of footwashing on Maundy Thursday. Thursday before Easter I was privileged to preach and serve as deacon in this ceremony at St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee. The subject of my sermon wasn’t so much about ceremonial acts as it was about authentic humility and how Christ often used women as exemplars of a servanthood that was marked by unusual grace.

The footwashing service caused me to ponder the subject of servant leadership, not just because it interests me from a deacon’s point of view, but because I’ve been exposed to so many leadership styles in my various careers, and during the past few years have sat on the sidelines watching some leaders who think that the archaic style of bullying leadership, otherwise known as authoritarianism, is the way to handle businesses, churches, social groups...

Authentic leadership is a rich subject, and the more I pondered it, the more I was drawn to my bookshelves for my copy of Servanthood by Bennett J. Sims published in 1997, a book as timely today as it was in the 20th century. The book is usually prescribed reading for a deacon, but it’s as challenging to people who pursue power and privilege as it is to church deacons. Sims, a bishop in the Episcopal Church, established The Institute for Servant Leadership in Hendersonville, North Carolina, which is not too far down the road from me. His book should be an indispensable guide not only for church leaders but for those who’re CEO’s of businesses and industries.

The idea Sims sets forth in Servanthood that particularly resonates with me, when I see bully leaders in action, is the one related to perfectionism which he describes as “nervously adolescent, driven by fear of failure, dominated by the competitive pride that would rather save oneself than accept amazing grace…knowing deep down that our perfectionism fails, and we hide from our own flaws behind the failures of others, habitually confessing other people’s sins…” To me, that sums up the idea of bad leadership, a leadership that Sims claims makes battlefields of families and organizations. He further says that only persons bring grace to institutions, and I assume if you aren’t a grace-filled person, you don’t belong in a leadership position.

Of course, my thoughts on the subject correspond with one of my mentors, C.S. Lewis—poor leadership coincides with two of the seven deadly sins—pride and accedie (sloth), which dominate the top of the totem pole of so-called sin—not hot button issues like sexuality, which titillate members of contemporary culture. Sims quotes some cogent passages from Scripture, telling about how the arrogant and judgemental  Pharisees and Saducees constantly badgered Christ with questions about his authority and knowing he had none, tried to discredit him on the basis of his lack of professional standing. “Even his family found him an embarrassment, urging him to get hold of himself and come home with them,” Sims writes.

Sims provides a short list of principles that define servant leadership but basically he purports that human enhancement, rather than human employment, is the primary aim of organizations led by servant leaders—delivering a product or service is secondary to “collaboration.” There’s the key word –collaboration—servant leaders are driven by the idea of collaborative relationships rather than competitive achievements.

Summarily, Sims says that the principles of servant leadership are: making room for others, truthfulness, empowerment of others, the exchange of power rather than control, a belief in grace and forgiveness. If you’re out there in the world practicing authoritarian leadership and alienating those who are under your “hierarchal control,” beware, because not only your leadership but your organization is at peril.

In my copy of Servanthood, I've highlighted a paragraph to which I return many times: “The biggest hindrance to the high quality of leadership that honors the gifts and freedom of others is the fear of being found out for who we really are: people who are conspicuously imperfect. Every follower sees blameworthiness in every leader. And when leaders can see it too—see it even better than their followers—and own it from the mercy by which they are secured, then everything changes. The family, the business, the parish church become arenas of openness, honesty, caring, and collaboration. They are marked by grace and truth...”

—Taken from Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium—by Bennett J. Sims—.
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