May 2013

The power of servant leadership

Servant leadership seeks to look beyond short-term satisfaction and immediate gratification towards the medium to long-term place of rightness and justice, writes Good Samaritan Sister Clare Condon.

BY Clare Condon SGS

Together with 350 people, recently I attended a conference – “Mission: one heart many voices” – sponsored by Catholic Religious Australia and Catholic Mission. For me, it was time to reflect upon God’s mission in our Australian context today and how leadership within the Church can respond. How does leadership assist in awakening the presence of God in our lives within a secular environment?

Academic literature offers us descriptions of a variety of leadership styles. Is there a particular style suited to the mission of God within the Christian context? All of us can easily understand the ‘Great Person Theory’ of leadership. We can name examples like Nelson Mandela.

There are others who believe leadership is defined by certain traits. Some traits are acceptable, some not. Others assume that leadership depends on the situation or the environment. There are styles of leadership that are autocratic, managerial, relational or participatory. On reflection, we can probably identify all of these various styles in our political, social, religious and business contexts today.

However, for the mission of God as portrayed for us by Jesus in the Gospels, we need a different type of leadership. We need what is called servant leadership. The perennial example is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as recorded in John’s Gospel (13:1-17). In the Jewish culture of the time, it was the slave, the person of lowest rank who washed the feet of others. Disciples washed the feet of the master. This act of Jesus was a complete reversal of that social and cultural structure and how leadership was exercised. He even went a step further by identifying his disciples as being in a relationship of friendship with him. In our own time we have the recent example of Pope Francis washing the feet of juvenile prisoners.

At face value servant leadership can appear to be weak and lacking in power. But for me, it’s the exact opposite. To be a source of empowerment so that others assume their leadership requires considerable strength of character. One needs a healthy self-esteem, a self-identity that does not rely on affirmation and status. One needs emotional stability that has been forged by deep self-knowledge and reflection. Above all, transparency between one’s words, actions and life is required. That is, servant leadership demands integrity of life. People are quick to see through falsehood.

Servant leadership is strong leadership and, as a consequence, it can bring its own conflicts. It has a prophetic edge to it and runs contrary to the norm. To bring about God’s mission, leadership needs to be driven by a vision that is aligned to furthering the reign of God. Its source of inspiration is the Gospel, listened to in prayer, liturgy and relationships. Other factors, like the ‘bottom line’ in financial terms, find their rightful place as enablers of mission not the mission itself.

Servant leadership can reduce the distance between ‘governors’ and the ‘governed’. It draws out the potential in others. Servant leadership is team-oriented rather than hierarchical. The servant leader is not necessarily the highest paid or the one with the distinguished title. Servant leaders break through competitive environments and build co-operative and trusting relationships. Servant leadership seeks to look beyond short-term satisfaction and immediate gratification towards the medium to long-term place of rightness and justice.

This style of leadership is counter-cultural in a country that has three-year political cycles which are often geared to immediate voter satisfaction rather than developing a sustainable and civil society.

At the other end of the spectrum, a church like the Catholic Church with an established and burdened hierarchical structure needs to open up to the potential of all its people so that servant leadership can prosper and the reign of God can flourish.

To reveal the presence of God, modelled on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church needs to embrace a leadership style compatible with the same Gospel. I ask myself, what would the Church look like today and how would it respond in a secular society like ours in Australia if its leadership style and structure were re-structured in such a radical manner?

Clare Condon

Sister Clare Condon is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She served as leader from September 2005 until September 2017. In 2013, Clare was awarded a Human Rights Medal by the Australian Human Rights Commission in recognition of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ work with asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians and the victims of domestic violence.

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