With elections upon us, we are being inundated with messages from politicians seeking validation from voters at the ballot box. Election season always reminds me of the discussion among the disciples at the last supper as they jockeyed among themselves to determine who was the greatest among them.
Jesus saw this discussion as an opportunity to plant another seed of truth that would enable all but one of the men in that room to eventually mature into great leaders.
When they finally turned to the One who was truly the greatest leader to settle the argument, they were given an unexpected answer that turned the common perception of greatness upside down.
Although Jesus’ answer is counterintuitive to conventional thought, the insight that he shared with his disciples that day about leadership has been proven to be true throughout history.
Genuine leadership is a humbling experience. It requires that we put our own needs on the back burner for the sake of those we are trying to lead. Real leadership does not revolve around acquiring status and power to be able to command obedience from others, it is the exact opposite. It would probably be a surprise to most people who follow politics through popular media to learn that many of our elected leaders, particularly those at the lower levels of government, are foot-washers.
No, I’m not talking about some kinky fetish, I’m talking about servant leadership. Jesus was teaching leadership in its purest form when he defined the greatest leaders not as those who give orders, but those who possess the humility that enables them to serve others. He even filled a pan with water and washed his disciples’ feet as an illustration of this genuine leadership. Leadership is really nothing more than foot-washing, humbling ourselves to serve the needs of those who will, in turn, serve others for the greater good. Foot-washing can melt a proud heart. A true leader has no greater adversary than his own pride.
It is the public officials who have a foot-washing spirit that cultivate the growth of a robust society by using influence, rather than power, to promote their policy ideas through meaningful dialogue, negotiation, and collaboration. They cultivate personal relationships. They are not preoccupied with shameless self-promotion and are usually a bit embarrassed when they are recognized for their achievements. They are acutely aware that they accomplish nothing alone. They are open to questions and valid criticisms with the understanding that this is the best process to arrive at a thoroughly-vetted policy that will be most likely to achieve its desired goals. Although this approach requires preparation, patience, and hard work, it is worth it because this method diffuses much of the controversy that often surrounds policy-making. If there isn’t much controversy, there won’t be much publicity. Because of this, many of the best leaders are unfortunately a well-kept secret.
There are many more of these people in public office than most people realize across the political spectrum; but these great leaders, the foot-washers, tend to gravitate toward the middle of the pack and get lost amid the political noise. These are the politicians who have what it takes to get things done; but the attention tends to go to the other kind of politician, those who expend most of their time and energy trying to convince themselves and others how great they are. It is that other kind of politician that causes us to use the term “politician” as a pejorative.
They are the politicians that love to be the center of attention. They are highly competitive and relish the thrill of a vanquished opponent. They love power. They would rather use political force than persuasion. They strive to convince us that no matter the question, they have the answer if we will only trust them enough to give them the power to implement it; however, they are duplicitous and usually have ulterior motives that they wouldn’t dare reveal to the public. They are driven toward the acquisition of power like a moth to a flame. The pursuit of power invigorates them, and they know that stoking other people’s fears is the most certain path to the power they crave. They are quick to ignite the fires of political passion and are adept at playing the resulting chaos and turmoil to their advantage by presenting themselves as a knight in shining armor, willing and able to slay whatever political dragon is causing their supporters distress. They spend most of their time surrounded by like-minded people, convincing each another how right they are and how ignorant those who disagree are. They convince themselves that if they could only influence the ignorant masses to elect more people who agree with them, all would be well. As they feed one another’s egos, the shortcomings of their adversaries are magnified, while their own shortcomings are camouflaged. The same thing also occurs with their adversaries, with each side stoking the other’s anger. It happens throughout the political spectrum.
The media outlets feed the inferno of egos by providing the most arrogant with the attention they crave. The fires of political passion are stoked until they explode into a blazing inferno of self-righteousness, ready to consume anyone who disagrees or asks a critical question that might force someone to reconsider their position. The fire spreads until there are fires everywhere. The infernos feed one other as each side becomes more passionate, pridefully entrenched in confidence of their own goodness and virtue, while allowing themselves to be consumed by their disgust at what they are certain are the sinister motives of their adversaries. The self-righteous are always certain they are right and that those who resist them are not just wrong, they are evil. This smothers any opportunity for meaningful discussion among thoughtful individuals with minds set on ironing out their differences to attain a mutually desired goal. All that’s left are opposing forces lobbing political mortars at each other from their respective trenches. This is the type of politics that the media uses to fixate our attention but gets little accomplished. It is why so many are disgusted with our political climate. This sort of politics makes a lot of noise, but it doesn’t make much of a difference. It is the quiet politics that gets results.
Political power struggles in a free society are messy and ugly, but necessary. The founders of our country recognized our human nature, devising a political system that takes advantage of it by ensuring opposition could flourish, giving rise to these clashes as a method to limit the corrupting influence unbridled political power. While these egos of flaming political passions effectively keep one another from getting out of control; they seldom get much accomplished, other than stirring up opposition. Even those of us who would prefer to engage in thoughtful political discourse are obliged to resist when those who are inflamed with their political passions attempt to force their views upon us. If we are prideful when we resist it, we become participants and add fuel to the fires.
If we can keep our pride in check and resist with a determined, but humble spirit, the flames subside. We can fight fire with fire, but it has been my experience that water is better.
While arrogant politicians do tend to keep one another in check, as our founders expected; not much gets accomplished. I believe that for our political process to be effective, the arrogant must be resisted by those who are armed with the most powerful weapons of spiritual warfare, truth and grace.
Truth and grace are like conjoined twins that share the same internal organs; one can’t exist without the other and they are only available to those who are clothed in humility. The arrogant often mistake humility as a weakness; but they are wrong, it is a sign of inner strength. When he walked the earth, Jesus was clothed in humility.
We must be clothed in humility if we are to overcome the arrogant without destroying ourselves, but genuine humility is difficult to acquire. When we try to be humble, usually the best we can achieve is that poor counterfeit: fake humility. Genuine humility can only be acquired through a constant struggle against our greatest enemy, our own pride. Having the courage and humility to be honest with themselves and engage their own pride as their foremost adversary has been the catalyst that drove the greatest leaders throughout history to their greatest achievements. For those who choose that path, it is a life-long struggle; but it is well worth it because it is this internal struggle that is the key to unlocking our potential for great achievement. It is only when we are humble that we can hear the Master. It is what makes the simple outfox the cunning. It is how the weak overcome the formidable. It is how we can all find our own path to greatness and there will never be enough great leaders. There will always be more dirty feet than foot-washers.
Alabama State Rep. Mike Ball is a Republican from Madison County