Kindness, Service and Leadership

“It is not the nature of the task, but its consecration, that is the vital thing.”  (Martin Buber)

Attribution: Donna CameronI had the privilege yesterday of spending the day with a roomful of non-profit leaders—both the chief staff executives and the elected leaders of a variety of trade and professional associations.  We spent a lot of time talking about the qualities of good leaders.  We identified numerous traits the best leaders seem to have, and kindness was certainly among them.  So was servant leadership, as well as such qualities as passion, sense of humor, compassion, adaptability, and inspirational.  It seems to me the concept of leadership has changed over the three decades I’ve worked with non-profit leaders and boards.

Thirty years ago, people probably wouldn’t have identified “soft” qualities like kindness, sense of humor, or service.  They would have named characteristics like forceful, determined, powerful, and strong-willed—none of those words came up yesterday.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when leaders must be forceful or strong-willed, but such qualities don’t appear to define the best leaders anymore.  There are still plenty of leaders out there who seem to use fear and aggression as their motivating tactics, but they are in the minority and the dictatorial likes of leaders such as “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, notorious former CEO of Sunbeam, are fewer and farther between.

Talking about servant leadership reminded me of something Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen has talked about and written about frequently: the difference between fixing, helping, and serving.  Dr. Remen—who happens to be one of the most genuinely kind people I’ve ever met—contends that serving is a relationship between equals, but both fixing and helping are relationships based on inequality.

Helping and fixing put a distance between two people.  There’s an implied judgment that one is stronger, or perhaps more able.  Serving, on the other hand, is a relationship of equals.  When we serve, says Remen, we see the wholeness in the person we are serving and we respond to them from our own wholeness.  And wholeness—in each of us—includes not just our strength, but also our limitations, our wounds, and our imperfections.  This reverberates with the Hindu word “Namaste,” which is often translated as “the divine in me salutes the divine in you.”  How could we not be equals if we are both divine and both flawed?

I love the concept that in serving a person or people—or, for that matter, a cause—we are serving life.  Not just their life or our life, but life in its broadest and most inclusive sense.  Dr. Remen cites Mother Teresa’s message that “we serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.”

To an outside observer, the acts of serving, fixing, or helping might all look identical, but the inner experience is different for those who are involved, and the outcomes may also be different.  Healthcare professionals are familiar with the concept of “compassion fatigue.”  This is described by the American Academy of Family Physicians as “a form of burnout that manifests itself as physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion.”  Compassion fatigue is much more likely when one feels one is always helping or fixing—these activities can be draining or depleting.  But service tends more to be renewing and even energizing.  Dr. Remen says, “Fundamentally, helping, fixing, and service are ways of seeing life.  When you help, you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken.  When you serve, you see life as whole.”  Thus, service is more likely to nourish, rather than consume or exhaust.

Along similar lines, helping and fixing incur debt.  If we help someone or fix them, they feel a sense of obligation.  If we serve them, we are also serving ourselves.  There is no debt, no obligation.  We both feel similar satisfaction and similar gratitude.  Service is a collaboration.

While kindness is often a component of helping and of fixing, one can help or fix without kindness.  In fact, one can help or fix unkindly, harshly, or with a surly attitude, and in doing so, we can diminish another, or cause them to feel inadequate or incomplete.  I don’t believe we can serve without kindness.  This is what the best leaders have learned … and how they are choosing to live and model leadership.  Maybe there is hope for this world…..

“Wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of. ”  (Rachel Naomi Remen)