Servant Leadership is Next

After several generations of “greed is good” culture, servant leadership is back.  

In a promotional interview for the movie, Fences, Denzel Washington describes three framed images found in millions of late 20th century American kitchens: John Kennedy, Jesus Christ and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The images were usually hung with Kennedy to the left of Jesus and MLK to the right. Kennedy, the Democrat, King, a Republican, and Jesus of Nazareth, the political independent, offered examples and a illustrated a legacy of servant leadership.

Fences is based on a 1983 play by August Wilson that tells the story of a family working hard, but locked into lives of disappointed expectations. The father, Troy, a baseball player who missed his chance to play in the majors, works for the city as a garbage collector. In his world, the driveway of his home is the only place he can exercise dominion. At work, he takes orders. In the home, his wife rules. He serves others.

Why, in today’s world, would Mr. Washington and the other producers of Fences, risk millions to tell this story?

The answer may lie in our changing times. A culture that in the recent past imagined the world in terms of bland collectives, made up of massed workers and faceless consumers, has once rediscovered the power of community shape the future and give meaning to the present. In film, the superhero of the 20th century has been replaced by flawed characters working together and willing to sacrifice. Stories of attachment and relationship resonate with a public that used to demand stories of super people leading helpless followers.  Where a Superman used to clean up the messes made by ordinary men, ensembles of messed up super beings are themselves cleaned up while working together to solve problems.

Servant leadership is the common thread that grants nobility to the characters in Fences and the kitchen images overlooking the action. In Fences, family members complain about their situation, but continue to serve. From a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell, Reverend King emphasized the “inescapable network of mutuality” that formed the core of his optimism. President Kennedy challenged every American to “ask what you can do for your country.” Jesus advised his followers “whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”  America of the last generation lost track of these messages.

Why is servant leadership resurfacing in the 21st century after generations that valued the needs of the consumer, self-actualization and “greed is good”?

A finer grained understanding of the way communities behave may be driving this rediscovery.  The steam engine and dynamo powered cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries, served by legions of technicians and masses of workers, and led by captains of industry, suggested a society divided into helpless groups and masterful leaders. Social mechanics imagined reshaping the world. The result was often social and environmental disaster.

The rise of a more connected digital culture, with its ability to focus on the details of community behavior, has led to practical applications of new insights. In physical world, weather simulations and wellness models in medicine are changing lives. In the military, net-centric warfare and “soft power” methods offer alternatives to the use of tanks and bombs. The gardener, who creates the conditions for growth, is the 21st century image that defines leadership. Our ability, in this digital age, to lift the hood on the workings of economic, political and natural communities drives home the need for servant leaders.

In professional sports, resources management, business, financing and investment, simulation is a useful new tool in getting a feel for how ideas and plans will play out. Fences and the new brand of superhero films featuring motley collections of mutants is the motion picture reflection of a new set of relationships. Our ability to simulate complex outcomes in the real world points to a simple truth: communities shape outcomes. Healthy communities produce healthy people. Damaged natural and human communities produce natural and social disasters. This new understanding calls for a new kind of leadership. Fences reminds us that a life well lived can be measured in service, rather than imagined mastery..

The usefulness of our connection with each other and with our posterity reflected in Fences. The kitchen images may have been overlooked during an age that emphasized power and the self. But, it was here all along. As a way of looking at the world, connection seems to offer a sense of hope and optimism that for a time was in short supply.