As a child, growing up in the somewhat unusual setting of English boarding schools, I was always a misfit: I couldn’t play the requisite soccer, rugby or cricket for a toffee. I failed in the boxing ring and never once managed to climb a rope to touch the ceiling in the gym. I refused to play soldier or airman and learn to fire a rifle or shine my boots with spit and polish. All of these activities were supposed to define us as boys, turn us into young men, and prepare us for leadership. And despite everything these activities actually worked…but for all the wrong reasons.
Marginalized, sometimes despised and often misunderstood, I chose at an early age to resist my oppressors, not by fighting back, but by playing the only role that seemed to have any possibility to challenge the status quo and redefine the normal measures of male success. I chose to lead.
Most of the time, I was leading an army of one – myself. I began as early as seven, when I decided that the lunch money my brother and I were given each morning by our recently divorced mother should be returned secretly to the jar in the kitchen each evening: better spent on much-needed groceries at home, than on fish fingers and peas in the school lunchroom. Little acts of leadership continued throughout my formative years: in the stands I took against archaic and oppressive school practices supposed to create young men, in running the school printing shop, in organizing the bridge games for senior citizens, in supporting the school choir, on stage, as house captain, and eventually as school captain.
Looking back, some 40 years later, I apparently believed then, as I certainly believe now, in servant leadership.
Back then, my choices were influenced by my Church of England upbringing: a strong sense of selfless caring, of service to others and of building community.
Today, I am agnostic verging on atheist, having lived under the sometimes oppressive, frequently dogmatic and often intolerant religious regimes in many different countries. And yet my belief in servant leadership has never been stronger or more sure – and it doesn’t need religion to justify or define it.
In a world where so many leaders are seemingly mixed up with greed, self-aggrandizement, and corporate, religious or financial agendas, I believe that the only way that we will survive as a planet and as a species is if leaders refocus on the people whom they serve, and become stewards for the communities, countries and environment for which they are responsible.
I also believe that leadership need not be defined by position, title, income or race. Each of us has the power and opportunity, if only in the smallest ways, to become servant leaders for our communities, colleagues, friends and neighbors, whether next door, in the next town or on the next continent.
This I believe.