Leading by Serving

Leading by Serving

Dr. Todd Matthews, Professor and Chair,
Department of Leadership and Organization Development and Change, Cabrini University

Leadership is an important part of our life as social beings, as we co-exist, survive and thrive in a challenging world full of obstacles at all levels. It is very easy and very tempting to fall into the trap of seeing leadership primarily through the lens of personal or professional advancement – i.e. leadership as a position and/or means of acquisition. We also fall into the trap of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once described as the “Drum Major Instinct” (click here to listen to this speech) where we take on leadership positions or engage in leadership activities as a means of personal desire or ego fulfillment. ANY of us can go down this path since as Dr. King noted, we all share “the same basic desires for recognition, for importance… a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.” And there is nothing wrong with this desire, nor necessarily is it problematic if we sometimes succumb to these needs.

However, what Dr. King stresses, and what I believe is most imperative to remember about truly great leadership is that ultimately it is not about the leader at all. It is also fundamentally not about the end goal that brings us together and makes leadership necessary. No, it is ultimately about what we do with that power and authority that comes with the position of being a leader. In other words, it is about how and why we lead, and ultimately the fundamental goal of leading is to serve others.

We all share “the same basic desires for recognition, for importance… a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968 (February 4), “The Drum Major Instinct,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA.

Dr. King opened and closed this sermon, which he gave two months before his assassination, by referring to Jesus’ discussion with two of his disciples, James and John, who wanted to serve Jesus so that they could sit at his side in the Kingdom of heaven. He told them that they had it backward – the way to his side was not to lead in the traditional sense, or to serve the King of Kings, but rather it was through serving all (especially those most in need of it) with love and generosity. To love your neighbor as you do yourself, to even love one’s enemies, this was the clear message of Jesus, and it was one that inspired leaders like MLK, Gandhi and many others throughout history to lead not for their own material gains, power or influence over others, or other more pecuniary ends. Instead, it was simply to help others through servant leadership. As Dr. King closed the sermon, he made his aims as a servant leader quite clear, as he described how he wanted to be eulogized (which tragically came to pass just two months later). He did not want to be remembered for his Nobel Peace Prize or his hundreds of other awards, nor his education. Instead he wanted to be remembered for his attempts to serve others, his efforts to love, his efforts for peace and justice, his work to feed and clothe those without food or clothes, his support of the imprisoned, and finally all that he sought to do to love and serve humanity. If one wants to be a leader, I say look no further than this last goal, and if that is your true purpose in your actions, you will lead by serving, and you can proudly claim that you are a “drum major” for truth, justice, righteousness and love.

Dr. Todd Matthews is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Leadership and Organization Development and Change at Cabrini University, where he has worked since 2015. He also serves as the Coordinator for the Doctoral Program in Organization Development and Change. He earned his doctoral degree in Sociology (with a concentration in social stratification/inequality) from Mississippi State University, a Masters of Arts in Sociology from the University of Tennessee, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Salisbury University (with a minor in Communications). He teaches and engages in scholarship and practice around areas of organization development and change, leadership, and the nexus of civic engagement, religion, and social change.

Leave a Reply