As I write this I'm celebrating my fifth anniversary of being part of The Message Trust - pioneering our first international hub in Cape Town, South Africa. It's been a privilege to serve in an organisation that has one of our core values as community, which is expressed in the term that we all belong to The Message Family ... or, as we more commonly say... we are mates on mission. The following article expounds more on this concept of being 'mates on mission'... seeking to be Christ-centred servant leaders who put others first.
On their 2014 release, Songs of Innocence, U2 wrote a song called 'Invisible' which closes with the refrain, 'There is no them… it’s only us!'
Such a simple statement. But also a sad reminder that as human beings we constantly divide people as 'us and them'… with tragic consequences. The history of humanity is a litany of devastation and destruction when the 'us' rises against 'them'. In leadership language, we have 'leaders' and 'followers'… which risks causing an unnecessary 'us and them' divide in our organisations, on our teams, and in our churches. Grab a Towel seeks to break down the myth of 'us and them'... recognising that, as Christians, we are all followers, and we are all leaders - carrying influence in this world. There is no them, it's only us.
One of the modern myths of leadership is that leadership is lonely. The super-hero leader is seen as championing a cause, leading out in the front, blazing a trail and single-handedly fighting battle after battle. If this is our image of leadership, then it will be a lonely place. Super-hero leaders can appear unapproachable, invulnerable and defiantly independent. Yes, their followers may benefit (in some material ways), but at what cost? This approach to leadership epitomises the 'us and them' philosophy and is contrart to the principles of servant leadership.
Grab a Towel espouses Christ-centred servant leadership - an alternative and biblical approach to leadership based upon the model of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not lonely... he knew intimate friendship - not just with his heavenly father, but also with his followers. Jesus said to his disciples, 'I have called you friends' (John 15:15) which surely explodes the myth of the loneliness of leadership. One could argue that Jesus didn't need friends. He had a focused vision (salvation of mankind), an assurance as who he was (the Son of God), and a prophetic understanding that his time on earth would be short. Investing in friendship made him vulnerable to being hurt, misunderstood and rejected.
So why did Jesus do it? Because Jesus knew that the task of putting people first, of investing in relationships - of making friends - is the task of servant leadership! We may accomplish other goals along the way... but if we do that at the expense of relationships, then what have we really accomplished? If we hit targets, make money, and build a name for ourselves, but end up being lonely... then surely everything is in vain? In Grab a Towel I state that 'people are the priority of Christ-centred servant leaders'... and if building friendships with his followers was the priority of Jesus, then surely it should be so for those of us who are trying to follow his example!!
This cuts against the individualism and independence of our culture and which has also infiltrated the church. Watchman Nee wrote, 'God does not blame me for being an individual, but for my individualism. His greatest problem is not the outward divisions and denominations that divide His Church but our own individualistic hearts.' If our hearts are closed to others, then we are simply not able to function as a servant leader. Having lived and served in Africa for over 20 years, I have learned and experienced that the Western approach to individualism is one that is foreign to African constructs of community and leadership.
The African Way (by Mike Boon) is a book on leadership which seeks to learn from indigenous South African culture and make applications to corporate leadership. The book highlights two powerful words which are integrated within South African cultures and speak into the issue of interdependence and mutuality. Firstly is the commonly known expression Ubuntu. The philosophy of Ubuntu is described in the Zulu maxim: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu 'a person is a person through (other) persons.' Desmond Tutu explained Ubuntu in this way:
A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Boon links this concept to being an effective leader within a team… and states that the 'the finest achievement of a true team is when one also becomes a community.' He then highlights a second Zulu word which depicts an interdependent community umphakati, which means 'we are all together on the inside'. I find this a beautiful phrase because it speaks of inner unity amidst external diversity… a picture of the church as described in Galatians 3:26-38.
'There is no them, only us'… ' A person is a person through other persons'… 'we are all together on the inside'. To me, these seem like remarkably biblical concepts of community. The Bible does not espouse individualism… the pursuit of personal growth and achievement at the expense of others. But rather, the Bible consistently teaches mutual interdependence, meaningful community, and shared responsibility. Although the Bible does affirm the value and worth of each individual (e.g. see Psalm 139), it also clearly teaches that our individual potential is best fulfilled when that is subordinate to the greater good of the community. 20th-century theologian, Leslie Newbigin, argues that 'the deepest root of the contemporary malaise of Western culture is an individualism which denies the fundamental reality of our human nature as given by God – namely that we grow into true humanity only in relationships of faithfulness and responsibility toward one another.'
Many of us have probably espoused this approach to leadership, community, and friendship. But the reality when I examine my own heart is that I am often ambitious, self-seeking, domineering, and individualistic in my leadership… and perhaps you resonate with this yourself. But the role of Chrisitan leadership is to help nurture and bring out the best in others through becoming servants, rather than being authoritarian and self-seeking. So grab a towel - and put people first. As we do so, we may discover that we build some life-long friendships along the way.