Arms of the Cathedral of St Michael and St George Anglican Compass Rose

Cathedral of St Michael and St George


Servant Leadership

Summary of address given by Raymond Perrier from the Jesuit Institute to the Grahamstown Diocesan Synod - 18 April 2013

Let me start by congratulating you on your 160th anniversary. It was only a few years after the foundation of your diocese that the first Jesuits in South Africa also arrived in Grahamstown and set up St Aidan's College. It is not recorded what the relationship was like between the first bishop of Grahamstown and the first head of that Jesuit Institute. But I suspect that if those two venerable gentlemen are looking down on this room from heaven they would be surprised to see the current bishop of Grahamstown welcoming the current head of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa to address this synod. And perhaps even shocked that the bishop of Grahamstown is an Africa, and the head of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa an Indian and a lay man! As the Chinese saying goes: may we live in interesting times!

I have been asked to talk on the relevance of Servant Leadership in South Africa today. To get to that, let me start by talking about the relevance of Leadership in South Africa. Let me give you a quote:

"Even to the most disinterested observer of South African society it is abundantly clear that our country has a crisis of leadership. This is not simply a crisis of political leadership, but also a crisis of parental leadership, corporate leadership and of educational leadership."

That was Professor Jonathan Jansen of the University of the Free State. And we hear every day in our newspapers, in our places of work and among our circle of friends about this crisis of leadership.

But I think that one of the mistakes we make is that we misunderstand the nature of leadership and the nature of leaders. We think of them as people who are separate, who are a group above, the ones who have the power. Let me give you a different model instead: I would argue that we are all leaders and we are leading all of the time. Sometimes badly - but always with the potential for the good.

Why do I say that? Because leadership is not about power or title; it is about influence. And we all have the capacity to influence those around us. Let me give you two examples. The first is from the Gospels and it is that famous story of the feeding of the multitudes: 3000, 5000, 7000 depending on which version you read. Who is the person who exercises leadership? Not strangely Jesus - he is waiting to see what happens. Not the Apostles - they are standing there looking lost and hoping someone else will solve the problem. No, the person who exercises leadership - whose behaviour has an influence on the people around - is the little boy with the loaves and the fish. What would have happened if he had not stepped forwards?

You can find a modern-day example of this on the Internet - on YouTube. It is taken from a United Nations Climate Change conference where there are presidents and prime ministers and chief executives from round the world. And they all fighting with each other about what needs to be done and when. And they would probably have carried on fighting had it not been for the intervention of an 8 year old girl from XX who stood up and challenged all those 'leaders' to do something. 'Otherwise,' she said 'there will no planet worth inhabiting when I am your age and I have my own children.'

The text books are full of definitions of leadership. I have given you one in terms of 'influence'. One of the most famous business writers on the subject - Steven Covey who wrote the '7 Habits of Highly Successful People' has a related definition which I think is incredibly insightful.

"Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves" (Covey: 'The Eighth Habit')

Have you ever seen the film 'Invcictus'? If you have not seen it you really must - not because it is about rugby but because it is about leadership and it is for everyone who cares about South Africa. In the film President Mandela asks the captain of the Springboks, Francois Pienaar, what his philosophy of leadership is. The young man is taken aback that the elder statesman is asking him for his opinion: he thought he was going to be receiving wisdom not offering it. His response is very close to the Covey definition above:

"Leadership is inspiring myself to be more than I can be; and inspiring others so that they can be more than they ever thought they could be."

But this should not be news to us as Christians. It is after all a philosophy that we see in every encounter that Christ has: with the disciples, with the rich young man, with the woman caught in adultery, with the man hanging on the cross beside him. Jesus inspires others so that they can be more than they ever thought they could be.

If we are to be Christian leaders - and that is what we are all called to be - we need to see our own potential and by that see the potential that others have as well. The Bishop's charge last night in the cathedral was inspiring but it might have also seemed overwhelming - can we really bring about change in our communities, let alone in the Eastern Cape or in wider South Africa? But that is what we are charged to do and the starting point is to see our own potential and by that to see the potential in our neighbours, in our parishes, in our diocese and in our province.

So if that is where we start with Leadership what is special about Servant Leadership? Again, the Gospels give us insights and ways of understanding this. Jesus has come 'not to be served but to serve'. He warns his followers not to be ambitious over each other because 'the first will be last and the last will be first'. These are phrases that seek to change the culture by challenging the culture. An attitude of Servant Leadership in South Africa today is one that would also change the culture by challenging the culture. Can you imagine a politician today saying that he is here not to be served but to serve? The big pay-packets they take would suggest otherwise. Or behaving as if she believed that 'the first will be last and the last will be first'? If that was the case why do they need those flashing blue lights to get through the traffic?

There has been much talk recently - and not just in Catholic circles - of the new Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. You may have heard that one of the titles of the Pope is 'the servant of the servants of God'. A great title but how do you live up to it? Well, one of the ways in which he has shown his intention to do so was recently in the Holy Thursday ceremony of the washing of the feet. Of course this is part of the liturgy celebrated by every priest, Catholic and Anglican, in Holy Week. What this ceremony is already speaks to being a servant. But then look at how Francis did it - and who he did it to. Not in the cathedral to a group of polished male seminarians (as I have seen others bishops do). But instead in a prison for young offenders - and to a group of young men and women, some of the Christian, some atheists, and some Muslim. Here we begin to see what it really looks like when we challenge the culture.

I think we have to recognise that for many people the term servant is discredited. After all we link it to poorly paid and unpleasant domestic work. Perhaps in this room there are people whose parents or grandparents were 'servants'. But there is another use of the term servant which is a 'public servant'. People whose salaries are paid for by our taxes - not just income tax but the tax raised on almost everything we buy - are traditionally called public servants: bureaucrats, police officers, teachers, nurses, politicians. They are called that because their job is to deliver a service to the public: when they do not, we get what have now been euphemistically called 'service delivery protests'.

So what would it be like in the Eastern Cape if the people paid for by your taxes were truly public servants? What would it be like if they were there 'not to be served but to serve'? If they were more interested in putting others first and themselves last, instead of putting themselves first?

Well you know better than I do that that is not what happens a lot of the time. But why? Because of the people in power? Yes. But who are the people in power? You are! You are the ones who can influence the public servants in your midst - because they are your friends, your neighbours, your sons and daughters, may be even you yourself.

Bishop Ebenezer has talked about the Church in Latin America and the need to learn from there. Of course, that is a different place, with a different culture, different history and different politics. But let me offer you two key phrases that guided the way in which the Church in Latin America saw its role as a source of liberation.

The first is the idea of the 'preferential option for the poor'. There are many people in our society with wants and needs but in trying to achieve the common good we have to balance them. The 'preferential option for the poor' requires us always to put the needs of the poor before the needs of others. Yes, the municipality would benefit from a new building - but how will this help the poor? Yes, the MEC would benefit from a reliable car or the President from a private jet - but how will this help the poor? As Mahatma Gandhi put it in another age: whenever you make a decision think of the poorest person you know and ask yourself how will it help her?

The second idea, which is linked to the first, is to be a 'voice for the voiceless'. This was coined by Archbishop Romero of El Salvador who encountered so much suffering among the people around him and saw that no one was listening to them. He used his pulpit and his political connections and even his weekly radio show to be their voice so that the cry of their suffering would be heard. Eventually the only way that the forces of darkness could silence him was to shoot him dead while he was saying Mass.

There are many voiceless in our midst. Who are they? The learners without books. The Matric students who don't have a qualified Maths teacher. The mother waiting hour after hour in hospital. The driver harassed by the police to pay a bribe. The lesbian whose rape is not taken seriously when she reports it. The small business man who is tied up in bureaucracy. The old lady not receiving the grant to which she is entitled.

And who can be their voice? Well you can. You are educated, you are articulate, you are connected, you can influence, you can exercise leadership. You can speak up for those who are suffering. And you can speak out against those who inflict suffering - through what they do and through what they fail to do.

It is your choice to decide what you do with your voice. You could use it to make things worse - though I assume there are few in this room who would intentionally do that. You could choose to do nothing and wait for someone else to act. You could complain about the people who cause all the problems - but always out of earshot so they don't hear you. Or you could be a voice for those who are voiceless and show your leadership but standing up for what you know to be right.