Authentic Servant Leadership

I had an interesting conversation with a Bernie Sanders supporter recently and was treated to a vehement, negative rant about President Obama’s endorsement of Biden.

This person is under 25 and said they will, in fact, vote for Joe Biden despite their deep disappointment and utter lack of faith in the “traditional” political system. That good old practical, incremental political change being peddled by the folks in power is a bitter pill that some are refusing to swallow.

But the open anger with Obama’s message startled me.

I have rarely heard anyone under 25 (in my somewhat limited circle) openly criticize Obama, let alone exhibit such disgust and disappointment with his message. 

Apparently Obama’s choice to only endorse Biden when it was apparent he had the delegates to be the Democratic nominee made some young folks lose respect for him. 

I talked about what I thought the strategy around Obama’s choice of timing meant. How endorsing Biden early would cause people to accuse Obama of trying to influence the race. Or how endorsing anyone other than Biden would automatically sink Biden because it would signal a lack of confidence from his boss.

We went through a few more scenarios and explanations but nothing shook their opinion. The bottom line was that Obama lost respect because the endorsement didn’t feel true. The timing was so strategic and calculated that his endorsement had lost all authenticity.

It no longer mattered. 

When I think of the “leadership moments” so many are experiencing with the Covid-19 pandemic, I can see how choices to focus on controlling the message, the brand, or “the optics” can lead to a loss of authenticity.  Too much time spent plotting strategy like its a chess game can destroy years of social capital and good will.

In addition to the strategy and planning necessary to make decisions and respond to this emergency, it’s clear authenticity and servant leadership are going to be equally important to those impacted.

How will you be an authentic servant leader during this constantly evolving crisis? 

Often people think these kinds of questions are only for those with broad authority like the politicians, industrialists, and corporate executives. But even those without authority have opportunities to lead in some “realm of influence”, even if it’s only ourselves, or with others in our home. 

We have some good examples of servant leadership from politicians (Mike DeWine, Governor of Ohio comes to mind), business owners like Chef José Andrés, and an ongoing litany of groups and individual citizens stepping up when and where they can. 

Those examples of everyday people, celebrities, and local store owners remind us that even in the midst of a pandemic, with chaos and high, (high!) anxiety about the future, we still own our actions. 

It will be interesting to see if Barack Obama can recover the trust he lost and how, if at all, the Biden campaign will incorporate Sanders campaign slogan “Not me. Us” which is an unambiguous call for authentic servant leadership.  

And finally, a Public Service Announcement you may have heard before.

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