Measure of Greatness

[getty src="108229446" width="507" height="338" tld="com"]photo embedded in blog courtesy of Getty Images …but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…. –Mark 10:43bIn our larger culture, often leaders are measured by things like the titles they have earned, the privileges they have accumulated, and the seats of honor they occupy over others further down in the organizational flowchart.That context provides the foundation for the alternative premise of a TV show called “Undercover Boss.”  It’s a show that originated in Great Britain, was adapted for the U.S., and has completed eight seasons. I don’t regularly watch, but I have seen bits and pieces of some episodes.In one memorable clip, Rick Arquilla, President and Chief Operating Officer of Roto-rooter, is introduced as a new employee to the staff of a metropolitan team of drain cleaners. He takes his place as a trainee in a panel van that responds requests for drain-cleaning service. Along the way, he gains new appreciation for the difficulty of employees regularly in the field, in temperature conditions that are uncomfortably cold or hot, always with the possibility of illness stemming from the hazardous waste with which they are usually in close proximity. The experience dredges up some painful memories from his personal past, and Arquilla finds himself reflecting in a very raw and emotional way upon what his future will be as a leader of the company. Will he be a manager who pursues a fortune while insulating  himself from the concerns of people in the field? Or will he be a leader who makes a high priority of pursuing what is best not only for the bottom line, but also for the health of his employees and the good of the communities in which business is conducted.The culture of corporate America is far removed from the culture of ancient Israel, but human psychology is largely the same.  The struggle of Rick Arquilla, and of most leaders I think, is one that Jesus comments upon in a dialogue with his disciples, as recorded in the tenth chapter of Mark. In their request for seats of glory, James and John are a lot like a Chief Operating Officer asking for benefits associated with a position of authority.Jesus has just offered a most explicit prediction of his fate. But the disciples neither sympathize with Jesus nor appreciate his description of his mission and goals. Instead James and John ask for corner offices in Jesus’s new company headquarters. Even though they have spent much time with Jesus, they are slow to understand his purpose.When we consider servant leadership, a common mistake is to think that only one person needs to designated to this role. Perhaps the disciples thought it was important only to support Jesus in his role. When he was done with all the serving and suffering, their loyalty would be rewarded with special privileges. But Jesus called them to join him in roles of service.A similar topic was the subject of my coursework at UMSL this week, as my classmates and I read and discussed the work of Harvard Business School professor John Kotter.[1]  According to what I’m told is Kotter’s classic analysis, one of the chief reasons that organizations do not experience positive, adaptive change is failure to form a powerful guiding coalition of leaders who believe in the new vision. Modeling servant leadership or any other distinctive new way in an organization is too much for one person working alone, no matter how skilled and charismatic. There isn’t a high enough critical mass to overcome the inertia of continuing in old patterns. Without the new pattern permeating the culture of an organization, one leader who has devoted a life to modeling a new way faces the sobering possibility of watching all positive change fade away after her or his departure. The chances for success increase exponentially to the extent that there exists a powerful guiding coalition.I believe Jesus understood this dynamic, and therefore purposely chose to spend much time training his disciples in a new pattern of leadership. In our church, we can’t expect only the deacons to be servants, or only the pastor and the staff to be servants. A church thrives to extent many people learn to measure leadership as Jesus did. We measure the success of our leading by the quality of our serving.In the past, I’ve told stories about some of the famous servant leaders in this church. I’ve shared the example of Denny T., for whom no job was too menial or too dirty.  The volunteers of the month that I’ve sometimes shared in a visual slide form all have been examples of people whose leadership among us is respected and rooted in servant behavior.  I won’t embarrass any of you today. Instead, I’ll turn our attention to an American hero who most of us admire.Richard Fairchild tells the story about a fort being built during the Revolutionary War. I’ve searched without success for a source earlier than his 1997 description of this event, but can’t find one. While it may not be historically accurate, it contains a sound moral lesson framed around one of our nation’s great leaders.Fairchild sets the stage by telling us that a company of soldiers struggled to move a large log, while a captain shouted at them to try harder. A stranger in a dark cloak dismounted a horse and appeared out of the mist. Observing the scene, he asked the captain why he was not helping. The captain looked up at the man, whom he imagined to be   a messenger, and replied indignantly, “I am an officer.” The stranger walked over and lent a hand to the men moving the log. As he prepared to mount the horse, he turned to the captain and said, “Next time you need help, please call on me. I am General Washington, Commander in Chief.”[2]There are many challenges in our world that Christ calls the Church to address. In its ministries, the Church shouldn’t have to call upon    just a few who will wear themselves out while trying to address too many challenges with limited personal resources.  It needs officers who choose to labor alongside the solders, Chief Operating Officers who are willing to clean up the messes when necessary, church members, deacons, elders, and pastors, who will not only lead in word, but serve in deed.In our larger culture, leaders are measured by things like the titles they have earned, the privileges they have accumulated, and the seats of honor they occupy over others further down in the organizational flowchart.  But when we come to Jesus, we learn about a different measure of leadership. We measure the success of our leading by the quality of our serving.NOTES[1]John P. Kotter, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” Best of HBR:Harvard Business Review,  January 2007, pp. 2-10.[2]Richard J. Fairchild, “The Caring Servant,” 9 Oct. 1997,