President’s speech: “Culture for Service Leadership: A Paradox Worth Living”

Convocation message by Dr. James E. Brenneman, president of Goshen College, on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011 – Goshen College Church-Chapel (as prepared for delivery)

Each year for the whole year, as a campus community, we focus our attention on one of our five core values within the context of being a Christ-centered liberal arts college. This year, we are considering the core value of “Servant Leadership.”

This particular image (slide showing two physicians) not only illustrates whom we might consider prototypical  “servant leaders.” It also illustrates the struggle of defining the meaning, itself. What we have here – don’t groan – is a “pair o’docs.”

As you know, a paradox is a statement or concept that is seemingly contradictory, inconsistent or opposed to common sense or logic, and yet is true. Some paradoxes, for example, are of an oxymoronic nature (images of plastic glasses and eyeglasses, the “Senate Intelligence” Committee and a self-described anarchist with the statement “Anarchists Rule!”).

Some paradoxes have to do with reality not quite fitting our categories. For example, the  “platypus”  — mammal, reptile, bird? Its recently mapped genome has reptilian, mammal and bird genetic coding. A paradox.

The literary paradox includes verbal irony, where the speaker or writer communicates the opposite of what they mean. For example, when we say, something is “as clear as mud.”

Then there is the “buttered cat paradox” based upon the tongue-in-cheek combination of two adages: “Cats always land on their feet.” And, “Buttered toast always lands buttered side down.” Put the two together and, voila, you get a perpetual motion hovercraft.

The juxtaposition of “Servant” with “Leadership” creates a paradox, an odd coupling to be sure.   Servant suggests “vulnerability, one who serves, or performs duties for another person or master or employer.” “Leadership” suggests “king of the beasts” or a person who “takes charge” of a situation or workplace. A leader leads, directs, or has commanding authority or influence over others. A servant follows. A leader has followers. Servant-leadership is a paradox.

The paradox, “servant leadership” was introduced into the modern lexicon in 1970 by business leader Robert Greenleaf, who had worked for AT&T for 40 years in many different leadership capacities and believed that in the information age, where service and technology industries rule, the old styles of command and performance leadership were outdated, outmoded, and ultimately, unproductive.

By intertwining the word “servant” and “leadership,” Greenleaf believed, that together the words said something far more profound, and true than either word separately and alone.

Of course, Greenleaf acknowledged that his formulation was simply a borrowing of a much older paradoxical leadership style found in the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus brought together the paradoxical nature of God as Creator and Creature, Transcendent and Immanent, Almighty and Vulnerable, Divine and Human. Jesus was king, but of an upside down kingdom where the last was to be first and the first, last. It was Jesus who said to his disciples when they were arguing over who would be top dog in the kingdom, “Here I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Jesus, servant leader/God becoming convict, Author of Life, dying on a cross. Paradox!

Greenleaf said, “Servant leadership begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” Emphasizing either half of the paradox, leader-first or servant-first, Greenleaf felt diminishes the infinite in-between varieties, blends, and shadings of strong and effective leadership. Context determines which side of the paradox to emphasize when.

Max Dupree, Chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., an innovative Fortune 500 furniture company, has authored a number of books on leadership (such as “Leadership Jazz”). He boils down servant leadership to one of responsibility and gratitude: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say ‘thank you.’ In between, a leader is to be a servant.”

Both Greenleaf and Dupree speak about the “in between-ness” of the paradox of servant leadership. With those definitions as a backdrop, let me suggest several characteristics of the kind of Christ-centered Servant Leadership that I hope will become a core part of your lives as you study, learn, and later graduate from Goshen College.

First, a servant leader embraces vulnerability as strength. One of the great images of such “vulnerable strength,” is that of water. Water is paradoxically soft and strong; it yields, caresses, soothes, heals, bathes, quenches, and sustains, yet water can wear a solid, rigid immovable rock into sand and patiently chisel a loamy riverbank into the Grand Canyon. As Job says of God’s strength, “You’re like water that washes away stones, (14:18).”

Such a servant leader listens with willful patience to others whose opinions differ, whose perspectives may not be the same as hers, trusting in the power of the Spirit, or the imagination and creativity of new ideas, to emerge by being openly vulnerable.

Steve Jobs in a commencement address at Stanford University, said that Apple would not have happened the way it did, had he not almost incidentally taken a calligraphy class that by all outward signs had nothing to do with his interest in computer technology. Calligraphy lies at the heart of the Apple phenomenon. What a wonderful case for the importance of a liberal arts education. He credits his success to an openness to see, listen, observe, imagine new things, in new ways, new ideas from new perspectives, often as not insights gained from others.

Another sure sign of a servant leader who embraces vulnerability as strength, is laughter. And not just any old laugh, but mostly laughter at herself or himself or laughing at the absurdities of immovable opinions or intractable positions. “Laughter at oneself” or one’s predicament is a ready sign of a Christ-like servant leader. Nelson Mandela turned his own history into a humorous aside when he answered a reporter’s question with a quip: “In my country we go to prison first and then become President.” Mother Teresa said of her labor of love, “I know that a loving God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that God didn’t love me so much.”

Patient observation, listening, observing, and laughing – all signs of strong servant leaders.

Second. A servant leader shapes culture  —  “defines reality,” influences culture, for the common good. A servant leader promotes a vision that is expansive, contagious, and inviting.  When Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module onto the moon for the first time, he wasn’t thinking about himself or simply his own national identity or parochial perspective, he simply said, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for (hu)mankind.”

Servant leaders do not stand on the sidelines or harp from a distance. They work to implement their vision in real life situations and times and bear the responsibility of its burden. They do not simply deconstruct hegemonies or critique domination systems. They take up the harder challenges, like moon walking (both kinds), constructing new paradigms and practices always with a view for the common good.

Being “counter-cultural” is settling for second best. A servant leader must have the courage to become truly “inter-cultural,” to lead culture or cultures to the better place, the higher plain, the nobler calling. When Jesus said we are to “love our enemies,” he was defining reality and went to work to create it. His goal never was to be counter-cultural, so much as to pull culture forward to that place where former enemies become friends. Such an outcome requires profound “inter-cultural” leadership at all levels of society now more than ever before.

As a Goshen College student, as future graduates, you now have been given a calling to become Servant Leaders, across disciplines and intellectual and cultural silos, to become truly intercultural leaders in service — whatever major or profession or career path you take. I am calling on each one of you to become  “Culture for Service” leaders — leaders in service.

Here at Goshen College, we are well on our way. By my estimate, each year, Goshen College students, staff, faculty and administrators provide at least 30,000 hours of service in various ways nearby and all around the world through our Inquiry programs, Leaf Relief, Celebrate Service Day, internships, Study-Service Term and more. Amazing! And I believe we can do even better than that and will. I have instituted an Employee Community Service program that invites any employee who wishes to do up to two days of community service annually to do so with pay as a token of our blessing and sign of our commitment to Service Leadership.

Every one of you has been given a high-charge to become Servant Leaders, a calling that may take you to the highest leadership positions in the world, or to the hovels of a refugee camp, or many places in between. Servant leaders all. Martin Luther King, Jr., said of his calling, which is true of your own, my own, our own: “After (you have) discovered what (you are) called for, (you) should set about to do it with all the power that (you) have in (your) system.  Do it as if God Almighty ordained you at this particular moment in history to do it.”

So go for it, Servant Leaders. Lead as if God ordained you to do so at this particular moment in history, and so with all the power you can muster.

A servant leader, also, abounds in gratitude. I recently received a note from Fallon Will Nyce, a 2005 graduate, who is a technology architect for the Fortune 150 Company, Whirlpool. She wrote:  “I’m thankful for colleges like Goshen that are nurturing graduates to look beyond themselves as they step out into the world. It’s those graduates who are changing lives everywhere you look, and sometimes in unexpected, unconventional ways.”

She recently blogged on her web blog, ITMillennial, how the core value “servant leadership” has become so important to her in the corporate context of her life. She always thought that “servant leadership” was mostly for NGO and Peace Corp types, who went into service in poverty-stricken areas in the United States and developing countries. It wasn’t really meant for “an ‘evil’ business major like me… was I wrong, so very, very wrong.”

For Fallon, “servant-leadership” works in the corporate contexts like hers where her role is to remove barriers from those she leads so that they become freer, wiser, more likely themselves to become servants. She writes, “I finally get that… Servant Leadership applies to me as much as anyone else who graduated from Goshen College.” “Thank you.”

End of story. Fallon’s thanks, her gratitude, seals her fortune and destiny as a true Servant Leader, one we can all be proud of. I commend her to you to emulate, who like Christ before her, embraces a vulnerable strength, boldly shaping the culture around her, and doing so with a touch of humor and a heart full of gratitude.

As we close our time together, I want to remind us of one last quality of all great Christ-centered servant leaders. They take time away to pray. Bob Yoder, our campus minister, reminded us at the all-employee retreat how Jesus did a whole lot of praying. I would like to leave you, then, with two short prayers that I have been praying lately that I got from Anne Lamott. These are, by her own account, her favorite two prayers. In praying both, side-by-side, a paradox is created in the praying. Praying both together make them ideal for all would be servant leaders. Simply put, they are:

“O Lord,
“Help me, Help me, Help me.”
And, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Thank you all for listening. Now, go out and lead the world.