Want to be a better leader? Serve those who serve you.

Andrew Robles via Unsplash

The sentence I heard recently at a union meeting really resonated: We don’t leave jobs, we leave bosses. Is there a more succinct truth in the world of employment? I have had bosses for whom I gave my all, worked extra hard, went beyond my job description. And I have had bosses who have made me look for other jobs, who used their power in a way that squashed my spirit, who made me careful to cover my backside. Those are the bosses I left.

Supervising other humans is not an easy task, I grant you. But the people who are the most successful managers and bosses understand the simple equation that leadership equals service. The best bosses approach their work as a way to help the people under them shine, grow, learn and perform their jobs as well as possible. The best bosses also never ask their employees to do anything that they themselves would not be willing to do. When the boss serves as a support to the employee, the workplace environment is positive. There is less worker turnover, less drama, less resentment. Leadership as service is a winning proposition. Why, then, is it so rare?


Perhaps Management 101 ought to include a lesson in treating people like people.

We who call ourselves Christians have a perfect example of leadership as service in Jesus. Even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus led by serving. Remember the part about the first being last and the last being first? You can find it in the Gospel of Matthew, 20:16. Remember how Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles? That story is found in the Gospel of John, 13:1-17. After washing their feet like a servant, Jesus said to the Apostles: “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” If the Son of God can lead by serving, we must try to do the same.

I supervise inmates in a state prison library. I am in charge of five library assistants who work very hard for pennies an hour. For seven hours a day, five days a week, they contribute to the running of the library. They keep the library clean, sign patrons in and out at the door, check books in and out, and explain how to use the legal computers for research. I am a pretty good boss, but the bar is low in prison: One of my clerks recently told me that he likes working in the library because “you treat us like people.” Treating people like people seems like a no-brainer to me, but I thanked him for his comment.

Perhaps Management 101 ought to include a lesson in treating people like people, because that courtesy is lacking in many workplaces. When supervisors treat their employees with respect, in the way they themselves would want to be treated were the tables turned, everyone benefits. The supervisor engenders loyalty; the workers want to keep jobs where they feel valued. It bears repeating: Workers don’t leave jobs; they leave bosses.

I recently attended a Mass where the presider berated the ushers for passing the collection baskets before he was done explaining what the collected money was for. By berating I mean actually yelling at them and treating them as though they had deliberately and personally affronted him. This was in the middle of Mass. This rather shocking behavior—at least it was shocking to an out-of-towner like me—seemed like a good way to decrease the number of parish volunteers. It was leadership by intimidation, exactly what the church currently does not need.

If we follow Jesus, our behavior in all walks of life should mirror his model of leadership as service. “If you understand this,” Jesus said to those whose feet he had just washed, “blessed are you if you do it.” If you do it. All of our reading, along with the piety of our preaching, is worthless if we do not do it. Whether we are the president of a company or a country, a pastor or a principal or a parent, we are to lead by serving. We already know what Jesus would do.


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