By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
On at least three different occasions recently, I’ve heard people lament the loss of “strong leadership.” In various conversations, people have asked: “where are our leaders” or “where are our role models?” I’ve heard people bemoan the lack of strong leadership for our nation, our churches, even our local neighborhoods. For every problem presented, people have offered the need for strong leadership as an answer.
I am frustrated by this type of discourse on many levels. It is as if there is one definition of leadership and when that model cannot be seen, there’s an assumption that leadership somehow isn’t present. We grieve the lack of leadership in black neighborhoods, by which we mean “race men.” These men, in their suits and ties, with strong voices and political connections, are the “leaders” needed to rescue us from moral and political morass, like a Dr. King. We grieve the lack of national and ecclesiastical leadership, by which we, once again, assume an educated, largely male and white, elite. In the dialogue around the need for a “strong” Pope, we take for granted that a man will be called who will hear directly from God and can be a leader for over a billion people, despite not one woman being part of the process. A pastor, a president, a pope are certainly all leaders…but the conversation about leadership cannot begin and end with these models.
What about the grandmothers creating urban gardens in abandoned lots? What about the teenagers volunteering at the local after school program? What about the faithful choir member who spends hours cleaning the windows at church? What about the underpaid teacher who feeds hungry children lunch with money from her own pocket? Are they not leaders? When we create narrow gendered and racial dynamics of leadership, we forget that the most important quality of a leader is his or her ability to serve. Instead of constantly lamenting the dearth of leadership, we can look all around and see examples of public service; those who serve because they love. And without service and love, there is no leadership.
I cannot create policies that deny people basic civil rights, if I truly love them and want to serve them. I cannot deny women fundamental control over their health and bodies, if I love them and want to serve them. I cannot create obstacles to people voting and participating in the democratic project of a nation, if I love them and want to serve them. I cannot imprison and incarcerate with no consideration of rehabilitation, if I love and want to serve people.
As we continue this Lenten journey, I pray that God will raise up servants instead of leaders; people who serve their country, neighbors, friends, and even their enemies because they want to love more than they want to lead.
Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Liaison with the Princeton University Center for African American Studies. She blogs @ Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar