Thursday, March 08, 2007

Servant Leadership

“You know that foreign rulers like to order their people around. And their great leaders have full power over everyone they rule. But don't act like them. If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others.”

- Jesus of Nazareth

A couple of nights ago I met with a group of Emporia’s firemen. One of the questions they asked Commissioner Tom Myers and me was our management philosophy. I told them, without hesitation, that mine is Servant Leadership. For me, this is a matter of faith and years of business practice.

While I have no sectarian interest in this election, faith is at the heart of who I am. I assume the best of the other candidates in this race as well.

My pilgrimage began early. I grew up in the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts. My earliest memories are of observing the great mysteries of faith. Even in my youth I had profound questions. Was God so distant that I could never relate to and with Him? Why was there so much evil in the world? Does God care about whether I live or die? Was Jesus of Nazareth really who He claimed to be? In time I summoned the courage to ask church leaders those questions. To my dismay they didn’t seem to have answers. “Do the best you can in life and God will reward you,” they said. My disappointment and anger led me to abandon faith altogether. Years later, in Vietnam, I had my Damascus Road experience. There, at a time when I cynically viewed the world as nothing more than a battle of the weak against the strong, my moment came. That time and that experience were life altering for me. From there, I set a different course in life and have never looked back. I earned an undergraduate degree in Communications with a minor in Linguistics. I went on to graduate school and earned a Master’s degree in theology. The guiding principles of my life today are grounded in my Christian faith and the principle that my role in life is to be a servant of others. As I’ve stumped around this city I’ve had some folks express the notion that they couldn’t vote for me because I’m “the guy who writes religious stuff.” At times like that it’s tempting to consider shifting gears, to set my faith aside to gain a vote. Of course, I can’t do that. My faith is at the heart of who I am. I cannot deny who I am, nor will I. As I said a paragraph ago, I have no sectarian interest in this election. I have no desire to use my faith as a bludgeon. My campaign is built on three themes – Community, Opportunity, Responsibility. They, in turn, are rooted for me in faith, love, and service. I’m doing what I’m doing because I see the needs and I want to serve.

Professionally, servant leadership is the model I proudly embraced for the last seventeen years of my career with FedEx. Fred Smith, FedEx’s founder, adopted that model in the corporation’s formative years and that’s one of the things that has made FedEx one of the world’s most admired and profitable business entities. Simply put, servant leadership works. One of the most prominent templates on display at FedEx reads, “If you’re not serving a customer directly, your job is to serve someone who is.” Those acquainted with me at FedEx knew that I fully subscribed to that philosophy. They knew, that while I was no shrinking violet, I was also a servant leader. It’s a record I’m proud of.

What does all of this have to do with the City Commission election? Everything. In about a month the voters of Emporia will decide who will sit in three of our “seats of power.” There are some relevant questions I believe that need to be answered for those who would take those seats. Should a servant leader ignore the plight of Emporians living at the mercy of slum lords? Should a servant leader ignore the pleas for fair compensation from public servants like our firefighters? Should a servant leader table equipment needs for these servants in order to present a shadow surplus to the city? Should a servant leader pursue a policy of benign neglect toward its minorities? These, and more, are all public policy questions that need to be answered.

I’ve set my campaign on the sail of servant leadership. It’s a philosophy I will not abandon. In 1521 Martin Luther told the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” That’s my stand also!

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