With the bloody grind of the Revolutionary War behind him and the soft currents of the Potomac below him, George Washington returned to Mt. Vernon in 1787 to resume the quiet life of a country landowner. He had served his country and now, he just wanted to be left alone.
But America had other plans.
After months of begging, the other founders finally convinced Washington to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, even though he knew it would likely result in his election as the nation’s first president, a position he really didn’t want to fill.
We all know how the story ends. Washington accepted the presidency. Not because he craved power, but because his country needed him and he understood that leading is ultimately about serving.
Oh, how American politics have changed.
Jesus on servant leaders
George Washington didn’t invent servant leadership. It’s an idea that goes back thousands of years, a concept that’s described in the gospels.
For example, in Mark 10:42-45, Jesus says,
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
In just three short verses, Jesus connected political leadership to service. For Jesus, great leaders serve other people, not themselves. Any other kind of leader is a pretender, a tyrant who doesn’t deserve the mantle of leadership.
And Jesus isn’t just talking about politicians. He’s saying that effective leadership — whether it’s leading a country, a church or the local PTA — isn’t about power. It’s about service. It’s about sacrifice.
Servant leaders live for the people they serve, regardless of the cost. These days, that’s a foreign concept. Sometimes it’s even a foreign concept in the church, when pastors and priests become more interested in building empires than serving their flocks.
Unmaking the monsters we’ve created
George Washington wasn’t perfect. And it’s naive to think that all of the founding fathers had pure motives, while all of today’s politicians are rotten to the core. It’s more complicated than that.
But something has gone off the rails in American politics. Candidates still spout rhetoric about answering a call to serve their country. But we’re not naive. Beneath the thin veil of sound bites and stump speeches, we see (on both sides of the aisle):
- Candidates saying and doing whatever it takes to win elections
- Political leaders who serve special interests rather than the interests of the people they represent
- Career politicians who fight change because they are personally invested in the status quo
That’s not leadership. It’s insanity. Worse yet, it’s our own fault because we’ve created these political monsters — not through our votes, but through our values:
- When we value wealth, we elect leaders who are motivated by greed.
- When we value power, we elect leaders who govern by brute force.
- When we value partisanship, we elect leaders who refuse to compromise.
The way home doesn’t start in Washington. It starts with us. It’s time for each of us to take a hard look in the mirror and admit our part in this new American sin.
If we say we vote our values, it’s time to reexamine what’s important to us and vote for servant leaders with humility, compassion and integrity.
And it’s time for us to become servant leaders in our own little worlds — in our workplaces, in our communities, in our schools and churches. When we recognize that an attitude of service is what qualifies us to lead, we can change the American political process by raising the standard for leadership.