Servant Leaders

You might remember that Boris Johnson said that he would chain himself to the bulldozers in order to stop a third runway being built at Heathrow Airport. And you might have noticed that this week, when parliament voted on whether there should be a third runway at Heathrow, instead of voting as he’d said he would, Boris was in Afghanistan. A friend of mine who happens to live in the prime Minister’s constituency said that he’d offered to drive the bulldozer for her, as it would solve a number of her problems.

When we think about leadership, we often think of national leaders. It’s very easy to score cheap points off them, but what do we ask of leaders?

Herbert Hoover was one of the most competent business executives, full of intellect and energy. With a handful of assistants, he put together a series of relief operations that saved millions of lives during and after World War I. He was familiar with Latin and proficient in the principles of mining and metallurgy. Yet his Presidency of the United States was a failure. Poor judgment and high tariffs and taxes did him in.

Following him was Franklin D Roosevelt, whose managerial style was the antithesis of Hoover’s. He often put off making decisions. He didn’t respect lines of authority. He would deliberately give different aides similar assignments. He incessantly played his officials against one another. Internal battles were constant and bitter. FDR was devious. He was never confrontational, using indirect methods to get this way. You rarely learned where you stood by having a face-to-face meeting; the President was usually congenial and unspecific. Many thought FDR’s methods were inefficient and chaotic, but most political scientists have concluded there was method in his seeming madness. The chaos enable him to prevent anyone from accumulating too much power or blocking him from information. He was incontestably the master of his government and the dominant figure of 20th-century American politics.

FDR had to work hard to persuade Harry Truman to be his running mate in the 1944 presidential election. Truman wanted to go to the Senate, but incumbent vice-president Henry Wallace was unpopular, so Truman was approached, and accepted the job with extreme reluctance. On April 12, 1945 he was summoned to the White House. There he was shown into Eleanor Roosevelt’s sitting room, where she told him that President Roosevelt was dead. After a moment of stunned silence Truman asked her, “Is there anything I can do for you?” She shook her head. “Is there anything we can do for you?” she said. “For you’re the one in trouble now.”

What we expect of leaders is immense, and sometimes those we expect to be good leaders are anything but, and those who don’t seem auspicious come up with the goods. As we heard in today’s gospel reading: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus came as God, as the most powerful, capable of “flinging stars into space”, but he came to serve. From the first moments of his ministry he threw himself into teaching, healing, and feeling with especial compassion for the weak, the vulnerable, among them women, the poor, the lepers, the possessed, the dying, and in our reading today children. Yet Jesus was a leader, undoubtedly a leader of men and women and of course of the disciples. Jesus was a servant leader which is a paradox all of us need to explore.

The world’s most admired leaders: Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela all had the certain knowledge that they were to serve those they led, to love and to guide them toughly and tenderly. These people did not sit and argue with others about who was the greatest, as did the disciples in our Gospel, nor did they imagine themselves as perfect; Ghandi in particular always regretted his failures as a father to his son. No, they focussed on grace and truth and serving the people.

This is difficult to sustain in our status conscious society; to be a leader, unfazed or tempted by the trappings of office. The media would have you be an iron man or an iron lady, to be always right, never to change your mind, never to admit that you might be wrong, and always to lead from the front. Sometimes, those being led want these things too. I always find very hard to realise that my bright idea is actually a load of nonsense, or to admit that I’m wrong about something. I think many of us don’t like losing face.

John became the managing director of an important company in Glasgow. After six months the leader of the trade union came to see him to make a complaint, nothing unusual about that he thought, except that the complaint was that John was only driving a Ford. “You have to have a Jag,” said the man from the shop floor. “All our other managing directors have driven a Jag, people won’t respect you else.”

Jesus’ world is very different to this one, all around us are examples of leaders who have not embraced this paradox, who wage war on their own people, who abuse their employees and exploit their colleagues, who want to be sitting at the table rather than serving at it and who want to be at the head of all processions.

You have probably noticed that geese fly in a V formation. As with most animal behaviour, there is a good reason for including that in their instincts. As each bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the bird following. In a V formation, the whole flock adds at least 71% more flying range than if each bird flew alone. Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone. Like geese, people who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier than those who try and go at it alone. When a goose gets tired, it rotates to the back of the formation and another goose flies at the point position. If people had as much sense as geese, they would realise that ultimately their success depends on working as a team, taking turns during the hard tasks, and sharing leadership. Geese in the rear of the formation honk to encourage those up front to increase their speed. It’s important that our honking from behind be encouraging, otherwise it’s just honking. When a goose gets sick or wounded, two other geese drop out of formation and follow it down to provide protection. They stay with the unhealthy member of the flock until they are able to fly again. Then they launch out with another passing flock or try to catch up with their own.

Here in Farnham URC, in our forthcoming Spire Church, we are blessed with people who quietly and steadily lead our activities and our work, who keep our church flourishing in many different unsung ways; people who have understood this paradox and who have the quality of gently serving others. Today you’re asked to recognise and affirm this in Belinda, David, Fran, Howard, Janet, Nick, and Sue. Their task as Church Leaders, along with Conrad and me and Methodist friends, for our new church is not easy, but they do with our love, our support, and our prayers. Remember them, and say thank you to them.

The world around us is desperately crying out for leadership, but not seeing it. Let us, in the church, be a model of leadership to world. Let us show the world the message of Jesus, let us make a difference, for his sake, in this community.

So, I end with some words by Martin Luther King, who knew a bit about leadership:
Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.