Thoughtfulness, inclusion, and kindness are traits we too often dismiss when searching for leaders. Aggressive command-and-control types, pushing forward with a singular vision for the future, fit the leadership stereotype we’ve been taught to admire.
In fact, life’s path is seldom so simple.
Sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one. After the careful walking and looking down [at the labyrinth], the stillness of arrival was deeply moving.Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
Certain rules and morals of undertaking the symbolic walking of a labyrinth came to mind during a December trip to Wilmington, Delaware. I’ve reflected on those truths over the past few weeks in a variety of contexts, but especially in terms of leadership.
We were in Wilmington for a family trip which took us to Christ Church Christiana Hundred for an afternoon concert of Handel’s Messiah. As is our custom, we arose on Sunday morning to attend church, and it was there, in what is clearly a lively and engaged faith community, that I saw thoughtful servant leadership in action.
The buildings, grounds, gardens, and labyrinth at Christ Church are lovely, as befits the rich history and frequent references to this place as the church of the du Ponts. The interior spaces are warm and inspiring. Two beautiful tracker organs — Opus 32 by John Brombaugh & Associates (1990), and the C. B. Fisk Opus 164 (2022)* — grace the main church and chapel respectively, supporting a robust and exciting music ministry.
Rather than highlight the beautiful architecture or music, I want to focus instead on tenants of leadership as I saw them play out that day in Wilmington. Specifically, I want to consider inclusion, servanthood, and kindness.
Robert K. Greenleaf, in his 1977 book Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, suggests that “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” Google’s famous Project Aristotle led it to conclude that in the best teams, inclusivity matters. Members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. In the face of authoritarian backlash, multiple authors have seen a different path, writing that the future of leadership is kindness. These habits of servanthood, inclusion, and kindness apply to religious organizations, businesses, nonprofits, and governments.
We only met the rector of Christ Church, The Rev. Ruth Beresford, twice on that Sunday, but it was immediately clear that this was someone who understood the basics of thoughtful leadership in the 21st century.
A few examples will suffice.
Leaders have the power to make everyone feel welcome and secure, no matter how lofty their position or prestigious the event.
Christ Church could easily present a stuffy and intellectual facade to keep newcomers at arm’s length. Instead, the very first thing that happened, even before the procession, was Ruth coming to the front of the church to ask everyone to stand and introduce themselves to others. Instantly all walls crumbled between long-time parishioners and newcomers, young and old, families and singles. With a simple one-minute gesture, the church, under Ruth’s leadership, made everyone feel welcome and part of the community.
Leaders support and uplift people, giving them the opportunity to shine. Leaders create other leaders.
We saw this happen in multiple ways. In conversations with Ruth, she was quick to recognize the contributions of her staff, directing praise in their direction. We mentioned our backgrounds and she made connections both old and new, especially calling out one of our long-time friends who was a mentor to her. She followed up in a couple of notes later that week, seeking to connect us to one of her former associates. Leaders network for the benefit of their teams.
Leaders, as part of the community, don’t just consume, they contribute.
Following both the morning service and the afternoon concert, Ruth stayed until the last person left. She didn’t just take up time and space, but she contributed to those conversations, connecting on multiple levels with long-time parishioners and visitors alike.
Too many times people in positions of leadership walk into spaces and put themselves on a pedestal. They take credit for work in ways that diminishes the team. The ineffective leader doesn’t make the hard investment in the community.
I’ve seen churches, nonprofits, and nations make really bad choices for leaders, decisions that can take decades to overcome if they are ever completely addressed. True leadership is hard. Without really understanding community or organizational needs, we too often look for individuals who fit preconceived notions without giving real consideration to the abilities that matter. Many of those seeking leadership positions attempt to portray personas that fit the stereotype without internalizing the fundamental commitment to service.
Poor leadership selection has played out on our televisions this week in the comical yet very sad process of choosing a new Speaker of the House. The eventual winner seems to have had lifelong ambitions to hold the position but no true principles. The contrast with the thoughtful, empathetic, and effective leadership of Joe Biden could not be starker.
As was the case in Wilmington, one can usually spot true leaders. They are the individuals who are welcoming, uplifting, and invested in their communities. They may not fit the traditional mold of a leader, but they may have just the abilities needed.
To get the leaders we need, we only have to summon the courage to select and support thoughtful, inclusive, kind, servant leaders everywhere we can.
More to come…
*Our dear friend Kate Harrington, daughter of long-time friends Constance and Jim Harrington of Staunton, was one of the pipe builders on the Fisk organ. Her handicraft can be seen in the pictures above.
Image of labyrinth at Christ Church Christiana Hundred in Wilmington, along with all other images by DJB