Yesterday at the soup kitchen, while stacking chairs and wiping off tables at the end of shift, I watched a co-worker trying to wake up the last person remaining in the yard, telling him we were closed and it was time to go. The man would raise his head to acknowledge this, and then, head would drop once more. He couldn’t keep his head up, or remember he needed to leave, for more than three seconds.
This thought crossed my mind: “I’m so grateful I’m not a heroin addict.”
Later, in the kitchen, while scrubbing down counters and ferrying the last few dishes to the huge industrial sinks, I noticed that one person who’d been working all day over those sinks had holes all down the seat of his pants. No underwear. I asked someone quietly if we had any pants for this volunteer, and he said he would make sure he got some on Thursday, when clothing came in.
What does this have to do with the topic of leadership? If leaders get too far away from the concept of service, they fail to lead well, and then fail to lead at all. We need to remain in touch with as many facets of humanity as possible, to not take our lives or gifts for granted, and to get our hands dirty when and where we can. We also would do well to keep in mind the concept of justice. The further removed we are from people who work with bare butts peeking out from the holes in their sweatpants, or from people nodding off on benches, the further away we are from realizing that justice is not some abstraction. People are working longer hours for less pay right now. People are living closer and closer to involuntary precarity. Animals are suffering. Forests are dying. Our leaders need to draw closer to this reality, spend time washing dishes next to it, eating with it, riding the bus with it. Our leaders need to not be so cushioned from suffering. Our leaders – and that includes ourselves – need to serve real needs and not just give lip service to ideals.
Acts of service not only open our eyes, they change us inside. If all I did was write a check to the soup kitchen, yes, it would help it feed people, but I would not be changed in the ways that feel important. I would not see the heroin addict struggling to get it together enough to walk out the gate. I would not see the acts of kindness. I would not see the reality of the working poor coming in to get food for their families at the end of the month, when the paycheck has run out. Someone could tell me, but it would be an abstraction, just as the men in Guantanamo Bay are an abstraction to President Obama.
When I was asked about the concept of charity during the Japan Relief fund drive, I said this: “Rather than looking at this from the view of charity I prefer to look at it in terms of justice. Whereas the root of the word charity – caritas – is that of love, I feel that we have lost track of that and tend to think of charity as something that wealthy people do for poor people. Justice however, brings us clearly back to the reality that we are all yoked together as denizens of this planet. We are not doing for, we are acting with. Justice is the rebalancing force of love.”
All of my long-term students, most of whom are teachers and leaders in their communities, are required to do some sort of service work. Why? It keeps the lessons coming and puts us in an energetic flow that means we learn to share the power we are building up inside. We share and learn from the children we tutor, or the beaches and parks we pick up trash in, or the animals we take for walks, or the sick people to whom we deliver food. We can become better leaders – divorced from petty politicking and ego squabbling – because, via service, we recognize that we are part of the larger web of life. Leadership brings our best selves to the collective whole. Service weaves us back into the reality of this collective.
It is easy for people who are trying to accomplish a big task, enact a large vision, or create change, to start to look at the things and people as objects in the way of the goal, rather than things to include or shift relationship with. It becomes possible to lose a sense of the original spirit of our vision when various ego parts want to jockey for position with this committee member or that congressperson, or whomever or whatever seems to be a threat. Service reminds us that we are all just doing our best, and perhaps we can recenter and recognize what we are grateful for. Service serves us. It keeps us open and makes us strong in ways that are resilient rather than brittle.
A leader who becomes brittle and set in her ways is a leader no more. Service reminds us that we are not better than others, we are all blades of grass in the field. Some blades of grass grow taller than others – sometimes for a season, sometimes for life – but the whole field is required to sustain the single stalk.
You are important. You are needed. You are special. But in order to lead? You need to recall that you are not that special, and you are not alone.
Service keeps me grateful, and gratitude leads me beautiful places.