By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute
Two dramatic illustrations of selfless leadership have commanded front page headlines in recent months. We’re talking about the examples of U.S. Airways Captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger and Captain Richard Phillips of the U.S.-flagged merchant ship Maersk Alabama.
We don’t know if either is an example of someone consciously trying to lead like Jesus. But it’s clear that the actions of both men point to the incredible power of leading selflessly — as Jesus did and said his disciples should do too.
- Sullenberger is the pilot who landed his disabled plane in the Hudson River on Jan. 15 and saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew. After he put the plane down in the water and people had evacuated, he walked the length of plane twice to make sure everyone was out. Only then did he leave the plane. Afterwards, he credited his veteran crew and clear-headed passengers with the largest roles in the successful rescue. “Me and my crew, we were just doing our job,” he told President Barack Obama when he called.
- Phillips, a former cabdriver, allowed himself to be taken hostage by four pirates who tried to seize his ship April 7 in the Indian Ocean. He put his life on the line for the safety of his crew, and then spent five terror-filled days in captivity on one of he ship’s lifeboats until U.S. Navy snipers fired three simultaneous shots to kill the trio of Somali pirates and set him free. He told reporters that he was not a hero, but that the Navy SEALS who rescued him were. “What they did was impossible. They are superheroes,” he said.
Rick Gurnon, president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Phillips’ alma mater, provided some perspective on the merchant ship captain’s decision to trade himself for the safety of his crew in an interview in the New York Daily News. “What we’re talking about is true leadership,” said Gurnon, a retired Navy rear admiral. “This is often confused with power and authority. (But) true leadership is service, and service is taking care of your people.”
Of so-called “captains of industry and finance” who have enriched themselves while bringing the world’s economy to the brink of ruin, Gurnon said, “They don’t get it.” True leadership, he added, can be taught — but not with a textbook. “You have live it day in and day out,” he said. “You learn it isn’t about you, it’s about them.”
If that sounds very much like a sentence out of Lead Like Jesus by Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges or The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus, my new book, it’s no accident. We teach that this principle was modeled best and taught most clearly by Jesus — but it’s true always and everywhere, no matter what anyone believes.
The Daily News column concluded: “What we need now are big shots in industry and finance who prove worthy of being called captains.” Fact is, we need them everywhere — in our homes, workplaces, schools and churches.
By the way, Phillips, 53, is a Catholic. He and his wife Andrea, regularly attend Mass at St. Thomas Church in Underhill Center, VT.
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