Following the Leader

“When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.  But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”  Jn 10:4-5

In 1977 American Quaker and former manager at I.T.&T. Robert Greenleaf published a book of essays called Servant Leadership. By far the most influential of his essays is the one which gave the book its title.

Greenleaf defines the servant leader as “one who has gone out ahead to encounter some great transformation who but has come back in order to lead others to that destination.”

Importantly, at least for my purpose here, Greenleaf makes no distinction at all between “service” and “leadership.” Indeed, he asserts that people who purport to lead but who either overtly or covertly are out simply to promote their own interest are really not leading at all; rather, they are exploiting.

I hardly need to lay before readers (especially before regular readers of this distinguished blog) the many examples in our world today of pseudo-leaders.

Usually they are the ones who most talk about serving the people and about having some mystical pipeline into the popular will, who  trumpet most loudly their own special capacity to “cut through the crap” in order to take direct action, who treat truth as plasticine and who never miss a photo-op to be be seen signaling their self-described virtue.

To create a concrete mental image, I offer Pope Francis as a living example of a true servant leader… and I invite readers to use their own experience to mentally call up the image of a pseudo-leader.

So, one of Greenleaf’s key maxims is that only servants of others are true leaders. These people have, usually through much toil, trouble and sacrifice, discovered some fundamental truth and/or have reached a higher state of awareness/consciousness/holiness, yet instead of simply enjoying  their higher state, they return  to the rest of us mortals (again, usually through toil, trouble and sacrifice) to rejoin our humbled condition in order to guide us and encourage us on The Way to this higher state.

(The discerning readers of this blog will, I believe, have by now recognized the archetype of the Servant Leader but I still encourage readers to call to their minds lesser and often derivative examples.) One might say that the distinguishing quality of servant leaders is that they emphasize their followers and de-emphasize themselves.

My main focus in this piece is upon the followers. Greenleaf’s second great maxim is that people must follow ONLY servant leaders and must refuse to follow pseudo-leaders.

I argue that our main problem today is not a lack of servant leaders but rather a lack of people who will follow them and only them.  In the short space I have here I want to offer the merest outline of three factors which I believe are salient to the problem.

And, doubtless there are other factors which I invite readers to discover themselves. One of the three I will mention is psychological/spiritual, the second is social and the third is generated by the pseudo-leaders who pose as real leaders. As I quickly sketch these factors, I invite readers to call to mind examples drawn from their own experience.

Social climbers, glad-handers, fair-weather friends, arrivistes…we all know the type…probably, if we’re honest, we all are the type, at least to some degree some of the time. The psychological calculation here is: “What’s in it for me?” When we act in this way, we’re willing to “ride the tiger,” that is to follow the person who (in our calculation) is most likely to lead us to our personal advancement, advancement usually construed in some material gain or prestige.

We act strategically rather than authentically. We “ride the tiger,” confident that we will know just the right moment to dismount. We are tone deaf to the call of servant leaders because the path they call us to is rough, difficult and definitely “the road less travelled by.”

The second factor is that of a values structure based on zero-sum thinking. This sort of thinking sees human interactions as fierce competitions which have only one winner and one or more losers. Now, it may be tempting to say, “Aha! This is capitalism!”—and, sometimes it is.

But the trait is much more deeply rooted than that. It’s probably based in the evolutionary history of herd mammals, where mostly it’s one dominant male who monopolizes all the females…until he is deposed by another one who’s stronger and/or cleverer. (Indeed, I frequently argue that the critical evolutionary advantage of humans is not that our brains learned to make tools or control fire but, rather, that we invented monogamy!)

Of course, zero-sum thinking is driven by that deadly sin, envy. Envy is poison to followers of true servant leaders, for it drives us back the to “what’s in it for me?” where we are once again deaf to the call of the servant leader.

The third factor is the astounding crumbling of authority, a phenomenon which has occurred over the past 50 or so years. From a 1950s world where “Father Knows Best” (and I mean both natural Father and spiritual Father), where “the policeman is a person in your neighbourhood,” and a world where “better living [comes] through chemistry” we have arrived at state where all authorities have been shown to have feet of clay.

Anti-vaxxers, les gilets- jaunes, the Brexiteers and western populism in general are fueled by a revolt against authorities who have come to be viewed as exploiters, liars, cheats and worse

In this sort of environment, who would trust the servant leader who calls upon us to sacrifice, to deny ourselves and to “take up our cross and follow”? Instead, we (increasingly despairingly) follow demagogues, charlatans and snake-oil salespeople.

 Will humans learn to follow only servant leaders? The answer is yes…once they become servant leaders themselves, for each one of us has the potential to be a servant leader in some context of our lives, whether it be with one’s spouse and children, with one’s sick granny, with one’s troubled friend or with the people one  works with.

“Be the change you desire.” Good point, Mahatma!

Johnston Smith is a retired teacher and an active spiritual director in Winnipeg.

  • Norbert Piché
    Posted at 09:42h, 21 August Reply

    Thank you Johnston for reminding us what true leadership is. Chris Lowney wrote a book on this: Pope Francis, Why He Leads the Way He Leads. I would highly recommend this book.

  • Bernard Carroll, SJ
    Posted at 10:07h, 21 August Reply

    Thank you Johnston for this courageous and inspiring message. Let us all strive to be servant leaders!

  • Sharon Walters
    Posted at 12:20h, 21 August Reply


  • Philip Shano
    Posted at 18:31h, 21 August Reply

    Thanks so much. I loved that book and still think that he has so much to offer. Thanks for reminding me about his wisdom.

  • Paul Baker
    Posted at 07:08h, 23 August Reply

    A great read not only for now but one to come back to. I feel so challenged! Thanks.

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