Give Me the Spoon

May 28, 2015 

Robert K. Greenleaf said, “Good leaders must first become good servants.” I count myself lucky to work in an organization where the leadership really understands that concept and works to encourage and equip everyone involved in our work to be the best they can be. I love the culture of CARE for AIDS for many reasons, but chief among them is the continuous conversation going on about how we can be and create better leaders.

I was raised by a father who, as a military officer, exemplified servant leadership and by a mother who, as a stay-at-home-homeschool mom, personified humble and loving service. I learned from them how to balance authority and strength with meekness and compassion. They taught me – in word and action – that any act of leadership should be motivated by the well-being and improvement of those who are being led. In addition to the training I received from my parents, and the environment I work in, my personality also naturally pushes me towards humility, compassion, and service. Basically, I’m an awesome servant-leader.

Yes, that is often my opinion of myself. Luckily, for the benefit of my ego and soul, I recently had an experience which reminded me that I still have a lot to learn and work on even in an area that I feel gifted in. The following anecdote demonstrates how being too focused on servant leadership ruins your chances to be a servant leader.

If you have ever been on a CARE for AIDS impact trip, you most likely attended one of our graduation ceremonies. These ceremonies are a time of joy and celebration as our clients mark the achievements made in our nine-month program and receive their certificates. I love attending graduations because they are a lot of fun, and they remind me of how effective and good our model is.

When I attend graduations, my participation consists of three actives:

  1. I take a ton of pictures.
  2. I give a speech congratulating the graduates.
  3. I help serve the meal after the ceremony, because I am an awesome servant-leader, and like to lead by example.

 

Each of the graduations is unique, because the culture of each of our centers is unique. This is affected by the personalities of our center staff and also by the culture of our partner church. Recently, I attended a graduation at our center in Kayole. Something unique about the culture of that center – influenced by the church – is how they love to show respect to those in leadership. When I walked into the church, someone took my bag and carried it for me to my cushy-red seat at the front of the hall. I tried to say that I would sit in the back – this was less out of humility and more because I wanted to feel free to move around and take pictures – but our center staff insisted I sit in the front on the cushy seat. This is how they like to treat guests.

 

The ceremony went on; I took pictures and gave my speech. When the graduation was over, people began setting up for the meal to be served. I was asked to take my place at the high-table which had been set up on the stage. Instead, I walked to the back of the church and asked if I could help. I was told, “No. Please take your seat at the high-table.” I thought they were just being polite, and I wanted to show what servant-leadership looked like. Besides, what would Jesus do? Would Jesus have sat at the high-table?? Looking back, I think yes. He would have.

I’m actually embarrassed when I remember how I literally pushed myself into the kitchen and took a pot of rice out of someone’s hands so I could carry it to the serving table. I was so determined to serve. I began scooping rice onto people’s plates and only in that moment did I become aware of how uncomfortable everyone was. A woman put her hand on mine to stop me from scooping rice and pleadingly said, “Give me the spoon. Please go sit at the high-table.” In that moment it became clear to me that the best way to serve these people was to let them serve me. I handed over my rice spoon. As I walked across the hall to the hight-table, there was a tangible release of tension in the room as everyone breathed a sigh of relief and order was restored. I took my seat and realized that everyone was waiting for me to sit down before starting to eat. I apologized to those at my table and happily received my plate of chapati and beans. As we started eating, the spirit of joy and celebration returned to the room.

I was so focused on servant leadership that I had completely lost focus of who I was trying to serve. Service isn’t service if you force it on people. I was reminded that day that being a servant for the sake of being a servant is wrong. Being a servant for the sake of the people you are serving is right. Sometimes, service means sitting down and letting someone else be the servant! It always means creating space for others to grow, to improve, and lead. I hope in our efforts to become true servant leaders that we remember the end goal: the improvement of others.