By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

I wasn’t expecting it at all. Neither was anyone else in the room.

I was teaching the principles of S3 Jesus-like Leadership to a class in a diocese’s Ministry Formation program, and we were trying to get a handle on the qualities and behaviors that the very best leaders show.

To round out our picture, students were sharing experiences about the very best bosses they had ever had.

The stories were very helpful. As the students shared their experiences I wrote down key traits on a large easel at the front of the room. To no one’s surprise it read a lot like the Boy Scout Law: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind ... you know the drill.

Then a woman in the back spoke up. “My best boss laid off everyone in the department and shut it down,” she said.

Gasps of astonishment filled the room. I said something like, “If that was your best boss, what were the other ones like?” We all had a good laugh.

The woman chuckled too. But she was serious about her nomination – and determined to tell us why.

Years before she had been working for one of the nation’s largest retail firms. It was a good job, she felt a deep sense of accomplishment, and thanks both to her boss and to her colleagues it was an enjoyable place to work. She really liked getting up and going in every morning.

Then one day word came down from headquarters. It was completely unexpected. Her department was going to be shut down and everyone was going to lose their jobs in the next few months. The news came like a fierce kick in the stomach. People were shocked, hurt and angry.

It took a while for team members to deal with the immediate and overwhelming shock.

But her boss had a plan.

The team had a new goal, he told them. Their department was being shut down and wiped out, so there was nothing they could do on the job that would matter the least bit to their employer. But they had a few months, and they could use that time to help each other.

Their new goal was to find everyone in the department a new job – a good job, at least as good as the one they were losing – before the department shut down and everyone was shown the door.

In no time at all, the team’s leader had them focused on this new goal. Their task was not to each individually find a new job, but to help get everyone on the team a new job. In effect they adopted the recent motto of the Golden State Warriors on their way to the most wins ever in an NBA season: “Stronger Together.”

They shared leads. They helped each other customize their résumés and cover letters, prep for interviews and get over their disappointments. And they celebrated their successes. Their team leader constantly encouraged and inspired them. 

When the day came to empty their desks and walk out of headquarters for the last time, they marched out the door with the knowledge that every one of them was headed to a new job – at least as good as the one he or she had just lost.

They had done it! They had accomplished their goal.

It was truly a team effort. But the woman gratefully acknowledged the special role her boss had played making it happen. “It would have been a very different story without him,” she noted.

Leaders, she concluded, aren’t just people who cajole us and cheer us on in pursuit of organizational goals. Leaders are people who really care about the members of their teams and who get up every morning with the firm resolve to serve them – in good times and bad, no matter what the circumstances.

After seeing the good that a leader like the one who guided her team through terrible straits can do, she knew she wanted to be a leader like that too.

It was apparent to all of us that she was well on her way to living that kind of leadership – the kind of leadership Jesus would be pleased to call his own.

We all thanked her for her contribution to our class.