What happens when a good person finds themselves in a situation where the expectations of the leadership position they occupy do not match their leadership style? For one, you get the Jimmy Carter Presidential Administration. Carter’s “Serving” strategy, as described by Simon Walker, may be an idealistic and honorable way to lead, and can be effective in certain situations, but it relies heavily on the responsibility and maturity of both the leader and of those who are being led.
Walker defines the Serving (RWX) strategy as responsive, back stage leadership. The attributes of this kind of leader are: “Low profile. Pays attention to what the situation needs. Responsive and reactive. Responds to the needs, issues, and concerns of others. Flexible and accommodating. May be led rather than leading.”
Generally speaking, this is not the preferred style US American voters look for in their Commander in Chief. Despite Carter’s unlikely election, which was more a referendum on the incumbent, the nation did not ultimately respond to Carter’s serving style, especially as it faced domestic and international challenges. And when Carter himself had to adapt his style and become more “commanding,” he proved ineffective.
Organizations across the spectrum have stories of seasons when the style of a leader did not match the culture and the chaos this can create. When a leader with a serving style presides over a team that is used to more directive and decisive leadership, the organization can find itself confused and at a loss for how to move forward. Or when a commanding leader takes the reigns of a more collaborative culture, the shift can be disorienting and difficult to overcome.
One of Carter’s strengths was in his ability to relate to people. He intentionally sought out counsel and advice among a large network of people who could help him better relate to what people were experiencing. A word for this is “empathy.” However, as Edwin Friedman illustrates, focusing one’s leadership on feelings can actually decrease responsibility and cause society to regress. “The great myth here is that feeling deeply for others increases their ability to mature and survive.”
Friedman says that the differentiated leader’s most helpful way to show empathy or attend to people’s feelings is to focus on a “sense of wholeness and coherent organization” and to become “immune” in the sense of “preservation of an organism’s integrity.” Part of Carter’s problem was that in letting the feelings of the electorate guide his leadership, he made decisions that actually created greater anxiety and decreased confidence.
The idea of the servant leader is one that we often talk about in the church, one that we lift up as a model of Jesus’ leadership. This style can be effective, especially as we understand whether or not a leader’s primary motivation is to be in charge of people or to serve people. Modern western society tends to reward the more dominant style of leadership, but still seems to respect and appreciate actions that appear to be based in servanthood.
Perhaps the lesson for any leader is found in Walker’s summary of example of the Serving style of leadership in action. Even more front stage leaders can develop routines and behaviors that help them be more in tune with where their people are. They can pitch in and help in places, thereby gaining a different perspective, a greater appreciation, and building good will. At the end of the day, the Carter Era demonstrates the risks US presidents take when they operate from a less commanding style. But servant leadership and servanthood can be effective styles when leader and followers alike can be trusted with shared responsibility, maturity, and commitment.
 Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 230ff.
 Ibid, 192.
 Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve,” (New York: Church Publishing, 2017,) 143.
 Ibid, 166-7.
 Think “Undercover Boss.”