Rising Leader Series: Week 18 - The Servant
Updated: Feb 25
A GOOD LIFE
To college he went, then to rising career
Married, three kids, until tragedy struck
Widowed, he wondered: "Where do I go from here?
No Mom for the children– me down on my luck"
But up from the depths he rose, brushed off the dirt
Opened his heart again, found wounded love
Three kids became six, each with gifts, joys and hurts
From chaos grew family, soul-touched from above
Each of Dad's children count dear to this day
The pure, saving grace of his soft, tender care
Is this servant leadership? It is, I say
Times six he gave all– times six he love-shared
Great is the reach of a good leader's worth
When love meets child, neighbor, nation or Earth
It is the habit of our times to separate our world lives from our faith lives. But this is silliness. Our faith teaches us how to live our lives in the world– how to see God in all people and things, and how to respond to His call. Given the challenges of our time, we need leaders who are both capable and ethical. How do leaders become ethical? You will recall (from previous letters) the ladder of virtues I call the “disciplines of goodness”:
It all flows up from the bottom. Servant leadership begins in our souls, in our relationship with God. With God by our side, in prayer and contemplation, we work to untangle soul knots. Once set free from our self-preoccupations, we look beyond ourselves. We begin to see dignity in all people. We begin to see our interconnectedness. This frees us to move up the ladder: to become more decent, civil and charitable. As we come to recognize the equal worth of all people now and in future generations, we become committed to the advancement of democracy, diplomacy and sustainability. It all flows up.
In the life of Dag Hammarskjold, we find a servant leader who kept his world life and his faith life deeply integrated. Here is a man who spent his life working to steer a fractious world away from the abyss. We can learn much from his story.
Hammarskjold was elected Secretary General of the United Nations in 1953 at the age of 47 years old. He was the only prospect for the job that all parties– the Soviets, the Western nations, China, and the other nations of Asia and Africa– could agree on. His good will and unimpeachable integrity were visible to all.
It’s hard to overstate the tenuous condition of geopolitics at the time. Just eight years had passed since the end of a war that had claimed 75 million lives. The United Nations had been formed to avoid another descent into the hell of global conflict. In the years leading up to the end of World War II and shortly thereafter, Europe had been cut in two by the Iron Curtain. It had experienced massive human displacement. Stalin held all of Eastern Europe in his grip. The West, fearing the spread of Communism, mobilized to block Soviet expansion. Post-occupation Japan and Germany were still in shambles, struggling to find a new way forward. Many Jews who had survived the Holocaust left Europe for Palestine. Soon they were fighting the British colonialists and native Palestinians to establish a new state of Israel. From Mahatma Gandhi in India to Messali Hadj in Algeria, new leaders were inspiring independence movements against colonial powers throughout Asia and Africa. Flash points were everywhere.
Time and time again on the global stage, Hammarskjold ran to the need and intervened personally to broker differences between competing parties. In his diplomatic work, he always sought first to understand. He once said, “You can only hope to find a lasting solution to a conflict if you have learned to see the other objectively, but, at the same time, to experience his difficulties subjectively.” He invented shuttle diplomacy, which he used to great effect in diffusing the Suez crisis, rising tensions in the Middle East, and civil war in the Congo. It was in the Congo, en route to another diplomatic meeting, that his plane crashed (under mysterious circumstances) and he died. President John F. Kennedy called him “the greatest statesman of our century.” To this day, Hammarskjold is the only person to have ever been posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
How did Hammarskjold become such a capable, ethical servant leader? The answer lies in his interior faith journey. After he died, his personal journal was found in his New York apartment, containing his spiritual reflections. He had started the journal when twenty years old; its final entry was just a month before he died. Here in this journal, the entire arc of a global leader’s private relationship with God was revealed. Published under the title Markings, it became a bestseller.
It was in this journal that the UN Secretary General bared his soul: "Before Thee, Father, in righteousness and humility. With Thee, Brother, in faith and courage. In Thee, Spirit, in stillness. Thine, for Thy will is my destiny; dedicated, for my destiny is to be used and used up according to Thy will.” Hammarskjold’s journal reveals vigilance against the sin of pride. Writing about himself, he said, “You listen badly, and read even worse. Unless it’s about yourself. Then you pay careful attention.” He strived for daily renewal in his life of service: “Each day the first day. Each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back. It must be held out empty — for the past must only be reﬂected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.”
For Hammarskjold, the connection between God, soul work and his role as a servant leader was unbreakable. If we are to live out our Christian faith, it cannot begin and end in private prayer and private morality. To be most fully Christian is to study, to pray, to search out our sins, to seek forgiveness, to welcome God’s grace, to deepen our sense of connectedness to God and all things, to form a conscience, to hear our call and then to go into the world and serve– animated by a gentleness of spirit. Dag Hammarskjold did just this, teaching us the way.
Our hurting world waits, good leader. Will you do the same with your life? If not you, then who?
Next week. we will begin a four-letter exploration of the dark night of the soul.
“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.’”-- Mark 10:42-44
Previous Weeks' Letters: