Reprise of my article for America magazine, July 5, 2004. Servant Leadership: What the Bishops Could Learn from Southwest Airlines. Still relevant today

Servant Leadership: What the Bishops Could Learn from Southwest Airlines
July 5, 2004 Issue
Carl Koch

After the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Southwest Airlines was the only airline that made a profit, kept all its workers on the job and actually adhered to its full flight schedule. The next year, while other airlines cut thousands of jobs, Southwest hired thousands and for each of those jobs had more applicants per opening than Harvard had for its freshman class. One of the key factors in Southwest's success is that servant-leaders guide it. At this critical time in the church, bishops and other church leaders could learn many lessons from Southwest Airlines and other companies committed to servant leadership.

The present, defining moment offers the Catholic community an array of choices. How the community responds will determine whether the church can regain its moral authority and heal the wounds. The course of action taken by church leaders will reveal their character and test their courage and wisdom. Their decisions will shape the future of each leader, and also the future of the church community.

James Autry, past president of the Meredith Group and author of The Servant Leader (2001) rightly claims that the old covenant in business is dead: If you do a good job and work hard for a company, you will have a job and that company will look after your interests. Those days in the business world are gone.

The scandals in the church have done the same thing to the covenant that faithful members once had with their leadership: If you pay, pray and obey, you will be ministered to with competence, respect and trust and guided on the way of salvation. The behavior of bishops and other church leaders have virtually destroyed this covenant.

Whether in business or in the church, all leadership is about building relationships, and the key to all successful relationships is trust. The old paradigm of leadership in which the bishops were formed creates stress and fear rather than trust. Instead of focusing his attention on parishioners, a pastor keeps looking over his shoulder to see what his bishop wants, and too many bishops hold a finger in the air to see how the winds are blowing from Rome.

In a growing number of organizations, this old paradigm is being replaced, and for good reasons. Supervisors were looking over their shoulders at the middle managers instead of helping employees do their jobs well. As a consequence, the people most essential to making a business successful—the customers—were poorly served.

The companies known for excellent service, great value and loyal customers and employees replace the pyramidal paradigm with a circle. The president empowers, supports and provides resources for the vice presidents, who do the same for the managers, all the way to the employees who serve the customers.

Leadership that emphasizes service first has come to be called servant leadership. Jack Lowe, C.E.O. of the employee-owned construction company TDIndustries, remarks, "Trustworthiness, which requires character and competence, can only flourish with leadership that trusts, supports and encourages. At TDIndustries we call that servant leadership."

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Servant leadership has its roots in the person of Jesus, the Gospels and the early church, a church that collectively called forth its leaders. In his letter On Social Concern (1987), Pope John Paul II wrote that "all systems of government are challenged to evaluate themselves in light of Gospel values." "All systems of government" should include church government.

In this conversion moment, bishops should look to Southwest Airlines, Toro, TDIndustries and other companies that have adopted servant leadership. Robert Greenleaf, in his book, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (1977), describes a servant-leader: "The servant-leader is servant first.... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead." The servant leader makes "sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?"

Robert Bennett, head of the research committee of the church's National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, pointed out that servant leadership is not the style of most bishops: "An individual bishop is virtually an absolute power; they are virtually unaccountable. I think that this is a major cause of the problem. The exercise of authority without accountability is not servant leadership; it is tyranny."

Any church leader needs to ask: How would Jesus lead? His answer is consistent: "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last and the servant of all"; "I am among you as one who serves"; "The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves." Or consider Jn 13:13-17. Jesus washes the disciples' feet and says, "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." If bishops or anyone else are to lead as Jesus led, they must become servant leaders.

The word servant in these Gospel passages refers to the "Suffering Servant" passages in Isaiah and means "slave of the king," a close advisor and confidant of the ruler, someone with great responsibility. This servant must be a prophet and a healer. So Jesus and anyone claiming to lead in his name hold responsibility and intimacy with God and must be prophetic voices and healers of the community. Only service and sacrifice will lead to the moral credibility and trust essential for leadership.

Servant leadership is hardly the model of leadership fostered in the church, especially in clerical circles. Even the lexicon used for leadership betrays it as monarchical and militaristic, a leadership style for feudal times, when the masses were illiterate peasants. We still call cardinals "princes of the church," and some still live in palaces. Secrecy shrouds Vatican and diocesan finances and the byzantine method of selecting bishops.

Our times invite church leaders to develop the 10 characteristics of a Jesus-like servant leader described by Greenleaf: listening, empathy, awareness, healing, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, commitment to the growth of people, building community and stewardship. This list would be an excellent foundation for the formation of priests, bishops and lay leaders for the church. Let me comment on just three of the 10 characteristics.

Listening. To help people become freer, wiser and more autonomous, a leader must understand them—done first through attentive listening. Ann McGee-Cooper, a management consultant for many servant leadership companies, including Southwest Airlines, remarked, "The servant leader works to build a solid foundation of shared goals by listening deeply to understand the needs and concerns of others."

When Southwest Airlines entered negotiations with its pilots' union, Jim Parker, the C.E.O., sat at the table. One of the pilots remarked, "The biggest complaint in the industry is that management doesn't listen to employees. But you can't say that at Southwest. The top guy is in the room." Servant leaders know that the success of their organization depends on trusting relationships built on a foundation of respectful listening.

The epistle attributed to St. James admonishes, "My beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak" (1:19). This is sound advice for anyone in leadership, whether bishop or C.E.O., pastoral associate or salesperson. Every seminarian and lay leader should have to complete intense training in attentive listening, and new bishops should take refresher courses. If church leaders listened better, perhaps there would have been no need to create Voice of the Faithful and Call to Action.

Persuasion. Larry Spears, director of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, says servant leaders persuade "rather than using one's position of authority, in making decisions within an organization. The servant-leader seeks to convince others, rather than coerce compliance.... The servant leader is effective at building consensus within groups." Servant leaders invite people into dialogue and discernment because they realize that more good can happen in an organization with the willing commitment of all organizational members. James MacGregor Burns put this point succinctly: "Leadership mobilizes, naked power coerces."

In 1991, on the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II declared, "The Catholic church values democratic systems that ensure the participation of citizens." But how many times have bishops reminded dissenting voices that the church is not a democracy? How many dioceses have fought bitter wars against unionization? How many priests have been exiled to the diocesan equivalent of Siberia because they raised discomfiting questions?

While condemning violence against women, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops concluded: "Domestic violence is any kind of behavior that a person uses to control an intimate partner through fear and intimidation." But church leaders have often used fear and intimidation to destroy perceived opponents, even the most faithful.

Stewardship. This arguably includes all of the other nine characteristics of a servant leader. In his book Stewardship (1993), Peter Block says: "Stewardship is...the willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than in control, of those around us. Stated simply, it is accountability without control or compliance.... Stewardship is the choice for service. We serve best through partnership, rather than patriarchy."

Servant leaders give account and expect to be held accountable, because this is part of a trust relationship. Sometimes the only way an account is given to the people by bishops is at the point of a court order. Without open disclosure of information and involvement of the people of God in the processes of church governance, no church leader can claim to be an accountable steward.

In addition, stewards empower others because they realize their interdependence with all humanity, all God's creatures and the holy earth. Ken Melrose, the president of Toro, unselfconsciously names Jesus as his model for leadership, and one of his core beliefs is: "The leader's role is to create an environment...of trust [that] leads to more risk-taking, innovation, and creativity. The empowerment to solve problems produces better solutions." By empowering employees, Melrose brought Toro back from near collapse to strength. Empowerment is something that many church leaders could learn from Toro and Southwest.

At this point in history, we need to reclaim the church of Matthew 18. Michael Crosby, in The Dysfunctional Church (1991), describes how Matthew 16 took center stage: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven." This passage propped up the old paradigm of leadership. Certainly Peter was a key figure in the early church, but so were Mary Magdalene and James, Paul and Lydia: those gathered in Jesus' name—in the church of Matthew 18.

In Mt 18:18-20, Jesus tells his followers: "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.... For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Clearly, Jesus empowers the assembled believers: women and men, old and young, poor and rich.

Crosby concludes: "When, for the sake of tradition, Peter's power to bind and loose is absolutized in a way that subordinates the power of the other members of the church, the word of God itself can be nullified in order to preserve abusive power patterns in the institutionalized church."

Now is the time for servant leadership in the image of Jesus to re-emerge in the body of Christ, to be formed in all who aspire to leadership. But all who would aspire to lead first come as servants. And may servant leaders remember to "be not afraid." Jesus goes before us.

Carl Koch directs the master of arts program in servant leadership at Viterbo University, La Crosse, Wis., and coordinates programs at the Franciscan Spirituality Center, also in La Crosse.