Today Catholic Christians celebrate the Sixth Sunday of Easter.
On this day, the selection we have from the Acts of the Apostles begins with these words: “When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and, falling at his feet, paid him homage. Peter, however, raised him up, saying, ‘Get up. I myself am also a human being.’
“Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, ‘In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him’” (Acts 10: 25-26; 34-35).
This selection shows the reverence that Cornelius had toward Peter, whom Catholic Christians see as the first Pope. It also shows the humility of Peter.
This selection also hints at the model of leadership that Jesus advocated for his disciples called the “servant leader model” of leadership. We remember, for example, that in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23: 11-12), and in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9: 35).
Jesus, however, did not just talk about this servant-leader model; he lived it. Not only did he serve those who came to him, he washed the feet of his disciples at the last supper, a profound symbol of humility and service.
In modern times, the servant-leader model of leadership became popular in academic circles by writers interested in this concept. One of the scholars most identified with making this style of leadership popular was a man named Robert K. Greenleaf.
Robert K. Greenleaf was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1904. After he graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota, he went to work for AT&T – American Telephone and Telegraph Company.
For the next forty years, Robert researched the concepts of management, development, and education. The more he experienced the world of business, the more he came to believe that the common power-centered authoritarian style of leadership was not a good style. So, in 1964, Robert took an early retirement and founded the Center for Applied Ethics – today known as the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
The Center defines servant leadership as a “…philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.”
Mr. Greenleaf said servant leaders are always servants first. They have a natural desire to serve others. The desire to serve others then leads to leadership. Mr. Greenleaf said that servant leaders are people who initiate action, are goal-oriented, are dreamers of great dreams, and are good communicators. They also are people who are dependable and can be trusted, and they are always willing to re-examine their ideas and life journeys to see if any changes need to be made.
Famous servant leaders of modern times include people such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa, St. Teresa of Calcutta, Martin Luther King of the United States, and Mahatma Gandhi of India. Interestingly enough, each of these people is also a great example of self-actualization. In other words, these are people who have a cause outside of self that is so great, that they will give their lives for their cause.
Though Robert K. Greenleaf died in 1990, his ideas continue through those devoted to the servant-leader model of leadership.
So, what does all of this have to do with us today? Obviously, most of us will never achieve the fame and self-actualization of people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, St. Teresa of Calcutta, or Mahatma Gandhi. But as Christians, we are called to be servant leaders in our own way in our neighborhoods because this is the model that Jesus commanded his disciples to follow. And because we are his disciples, this applies to us.
In my perspective, the people I most admire for their servant leadership style are parents. In our parish, which has so many weddings, I get to observe couples through time. I love watching parents dote on their newborns, especially the firstborns. It is as if the whole universe revolves around their little prince or princess. Suddenly, a young couple that lived for themselves and their own pleasure finds themselves in second place. Their children come first, and they come second. As time goes on, they find themselves making more and greater sacrifices so their children can have things that cost money.
So, if you ever want to study servant leadership, you only have to look at young parents to see how it works. Observe them. Talk with them. Learn about their sacrifices and the joys they get from their child-centered lifestyle. When you do this, you will understand why Jesus was taught and lived this form of leadership.
As we continue our life journeys this week, it would be a good idea to reflect on the servant leadership model in your life. How does it apply to you?
And that is the good news I have for you on this Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2018.
- Wikipedia Contributors. “Robert K. Greenleaf.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 2 January 2018.
- William M. Caserlow. “Ten Principles of Servant Leadership.” Kent State University at Stark, no date.