NOTE:  At the start of the year, we published a list of nine “core principles” around the notion of Leading Like Jesus. The article got a lot of reader feedback – all positive – so we decided to probe deeper by focusing on each principle individually in subsequent issues of The Catholic Leader. In this issue we focus on Core Principle 5: Servant Leaderhip means it's not about me.

By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

As human beings grow and develop, we gradually become self-aware. That is, we can envision and speak of ourselves as other. We are aware that a “me” exists. We adopt terms to reflect that self-awareness like “my” and “mine.” We use them to advocate for ourselves.

Self-awareness is an incredible asset, a gift. But it can also become a crippling liability.

With an awareness of myself comes a question:  Who is going to take care of me?

Assuming we are raised in a caring and nurturing family, that question doesn’t come up immediately. Instead, we are drawn to our primary caregivers – usually a mom and dad – and we implicitly trust them to look after us.

But then things get more complicated.

Growing complications

If you have a sibling, before long you are going to have a disagreement with that sibling. You run to your mom to take your side. But sooner or later, you’re the instigator and mom doesn’t take your side. Or at the very least, she works toward a compromise that doesn’t serve your interests as much as you like them to be served.

Without really even realizing it, you start to look after your own interests. You are going to take care of yourself – as least as much as you can.

As you grow and develop your behaviors become more conscious and then self-conscious. Your efforts to look after yourself – and to get others to help you – become deliberate. Almost inevitably you will tell a lie to help yourself.

There is a growing temptation – maybe not even a conscious one – to assume that everything is about me.

Left unchecked by good nurturing and sound moral education, or mired in insecurity for some other reason, I might well become a narcissist – someone who is so self-centered that they assume that what they want is more important than anything anyone else might want.

For serious narcissists – who some experts say make up 6% of the population -- everything is always about me.

The rest of us

For the rest of us, we deal with a personal mix of concerns for the self and for others. Jesus told us we should strive for a balance – trying to love our neighbors as ourselves.

As it turns out, that’s a hard balance to achieve because we’re biased toward looking out for ourselves. After all, we reason -- when we even bother to think about it – if we don’t look out for ourselves, who will?

The trouble is that none of us live in a vacuum, and our real, long-term welfare is tied up in a complex web of interdependence. If we don’t look out for other individuals and for the common good, it is impossible for us to find a consistent state of well-being.

On the other hand, if we show due regard for the welfare of others and for the communities in which we interact, our welfare is more assured too. It’s a case of a rising tide floats all boats.

Leadership perspectives

Jesus was acutely aware of our fundamental interdependence and unity. He made it clear that we should all live as he lived – focused on doing the will of his Father, Creator of all the universe, including each and every little part.

Jesus was so focused on doing the will of his Father that he was willing to suffer and die for that cause.

He also told his disciples that if they wanted to lead, they should do it as servants. Real leadership, he said, is about serving God’s mission and serving others.

Jesus makes it clear that for him life is not about indulging or protecting himself, but about doing the will of his Father.

In recent decades, as we began to more closely study the dynamics of leadership, we have come to ever more appreciate the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching and the power of his example. It turns out that mission-centered leaders tend to excel while self-centered people who seek to lead struggle to succeed.

That’s because when we encounter a leader who is self-serving instead of focused on serving a mission we all can share, we feel that we have to look out for ourselves too instead of serving the mission. Over time, as self-protection spreads like a virus through an organization, no one is looking out for the organization’s mission and its performance suffers.

It's all about We!

Servant leadership recognizes that for any group of people to thrive and be effective, it has to be all about we – and the common purpose we are trying to achieve together.

And yet, there is always that tug of self-concern from the ego. When I’m under pressure to perform, when I’m new on the job and trying to prove my worth, when I feel threatened by people or circumstances that appear hostile to me, how to do I avoid being overcome by fear and start assuming it’s all about me?

Actually, there’s a two-step solution to growing self-centeredness in times of crisis:

  • Stay focused on the mission rather than on yourself. Pray for strength and resolve. Try to stay clear-headed. Do what you can. Strive for excellence. Look for opportunities to collaborate with others.
  • Relish the love of God for you, made manifest in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. Remind yourself of it. Reflect on it. God loves you unconditionally. You have worth beyond measure. That not only is true right now, it will be true no matter what the outcome of the immediate challenge. Feel God’s love and be grateful for it. Take heart. You are not alone. You are never alone.

Once we are sufficiently aware of how much God loves us, we can trust our welfare to Him and focus on leading like Jesus did – putting God first and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

It’s then that we can live, love and lead like Jesus.