Servant Leadership and the Coronavirus

Martin Darby is my good friend. Before he retired as CEO of a multi-national corporation, I had the opportunity to visit him and witness first-hand the power of servant leadership as he lived it in the workplace. Martin retired early to succeed me as president of the Institute for Servant Leadership, and now devotes his time to working with congregations of faith-based organizations. The following post is his reflection on the transforming power of servant leadership.

The Leadership of Servanthood

All around the world a great deal has been spoken about leadership in recent times. As nations have dealt with the coronavirus situation, so the role of leaders has been scrutinized more than ever before. And as never before, the application of servant leadership, when practiced, has never been more critical or more needed.

Servant leadership is most often identified as being founded in the teachings of Jesus. He taught that a leader’s greatness is measured by a total commitment to serve others. When He asked his disciples, who is the greater among you, the one who sits at table or the one who serves, he answered the question himself by telling them that they would say it was the one who was sitting at the table but He was among them as one who serves. As we approach Maundy Thursday when Christian churches commemorate the washing of the disciples’ feet, our leaders would do well to remember that the act was an unambiguous demonstration of leadership as servanthood.

It is a style of leadership based on compassion and caring, not on domination and dictation. It is authority with those you seek to lead, not authority over them. It is anchored in empowering, enabling and entrusting, not on coercion, command and control. And above all else, it demands a brutal honesty, sharing the truth with all and not trying to manipulate the facts or the people with whom you are sharing them.

Transforming a Community

Experience tells me that when practiced, this style of leadership can have an astonishing effect on the culture of the community served. It becomes a kinder more compassionate body and differences of opinion are respected and sorted out in a good-natured, gentler manner. The interaction of the servant-led community with others also changes, and interactions are not marked by aggression, ridicule and rudeness but by friendliness, respect and courtesy.

The United States is in the midst of a crisis the likes of which many of us have never experienced before. Talk of Pearl Harbor and 911 have been comparisons. More than ever before, we need leaders who not only understand the astonishing impact that servant leadership can have on the present situation but also the impact it can have on the final outcome. We will only get through this pandemic successfully if we work together and recognize that we each bring different gifts. It is the harnessing of these gifts, the respecting of them and the sharing of them that will allow us to win the battle against Covid-19.

The world is experiencing the crisis too. It is a global pandemic, and so not only do we need to see the US gathering experts around the table, listening to their wisdom and knowledge born from their unique gifts – the whole will become far greater than the sum of the parts – but we also need to work harmoniously and respectfully with all other communities (countries) around the world, not criticize and ridicule them. We need each other!

The theologian, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician Albert Schweitzer said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” Let us pray and hope that our leaders in the US and leaders around the world will find happiness in serving and lead us through this pandemic with clarity of vision, compassion and caring, and with respect and dignity for all.

Martin Darby,   6th March 2020



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