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Keeping first things first

Posted on July 13, 2015 in: Articles


What makes the Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus unique is our focus on S3 Leadership -- servant, steward and shepherd.

Many of you are familiar with these concepts. But no doubt some of your aren't. And all of us can use a reminder from time to time. So here's the 10-second "elevator speech" outline.

  • S1, Servant - It's not about me.
  • S2, Steward - It's not mine.
  • S3, Shepherd - People are precious.

Servant Leadership is not a new concept. The term dates to Robert Greenleaf's 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader.In that essay he wrote: 

The servant-leader is servantfirst... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions...The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature. 

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served,become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"

Greenleaf's four-question test is one that every aspiring leader should keep handy -- and administer to himself or herself often.

Of course, the concept of true servant leadership dates back much further than Greenleaf's term because, as we never tire of pointing out, Jesus was the best servant leadership teacher and role model of all time.

As I eagerly studied the incredible work of Greenleaf and others regarding the power of servant leadership to shape better individuals and organizations -- and thus a better world -- I also came to see that servant leadership by itself was not an adequate concept. To fully blossom, it had to be coupled with Steward Leadership (S2).

The reason is simple. Servant leadership insists "it's not about me." But without Steward Leadership, "it's always mine" -- whether we are talking about the position one holds, the organization one leads, or the responsibility one has. And if it's mine, it's always about me.

So I decided that Servant Leadership and Steward Leadership should be given equal weight, and the notion of S2 Leadership took shape. I confess I was pretty pleased with myself.

Shortly thereafter I was riding in an elevator with Phil Hodges and Ken Blanchard, co-founders of the Lead Like Jesus Movement. We were on our way to the MBA class Ken was teaching at the University of San Diego University, a fine Catholic school. I mentioned that I planned to emphasize S2 Leadership and explained the concept.

"Why not make it S3 Leadership?" Ken asked. I felt like Bill Cosby playing Noah being told by God to build an ark. Cosby's awe-filled Noah instantly agrees, then thinks to ask: "What's an ark?" In similar fashion, I responded to Ken's suggestion by saying, "Sure." Then I had to ask: "What's the third S?"

"Shepherd," Ken replied. I confess that I was more than a little troubled. As a layman, I was pretty sure who would get to play the dumb sheep -- and my ego wasn't keen on assuming that role. "Let me think about it," I replied diplomatically. The elevator doors opened, we headed toward a classroom down the hall, and none of us brought up the topic again.

Back home I decided to keep my word and "think about" adding Shepherd Leadership to the mix. Distressed by what I considered the implications for followers, I decided to go back to the Gospels and see exactly what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of leaders as shepherds.

What I discovered immediately is that Jesus and his audiences knew a lot more sheep than most of us do. We tend to think sheep as nice, fluffy little critters nestled in the arms of a shepherd figurine we display in our crèches at Christmas. In a word, we see them as docile.

But Jesus and his contemporaries knew better. Sheep, in fact, are not naturally docile. That explains why Jesus says sheep will follow a shepherd whose voice they know; but "they will run from (a stranger) because they do not know the voice of strangers"(John 10:5).

Jesus also says that if sheep are in the care of a "hired hand" -- someone who is looking after them only for his own short-term benefit -- when the hired hand sees a wolf he will run away and the sheep will scatter. It takes a "good shepherd" who will lay down his life for the sheep to keep them together and protect them from harm (John 10:11-14).

In other words, the responsibility for keeping the sheep together, trusting the shepherd and following him, belongs to the shepherd, not to the sheep. From the shepherd's perspective, the welfare of the sheep are worth his very life.

At that point, I happily added Shepherd Leadership to the Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus. Because no one knew better, taught better and lived more faithfully the conviction that people are precious than Jesus did.

Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

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