Obama: The Servant-Leader
Patrick Martin, MD
Citizen & Student
January 18, 2017
Robert Greenleaf, in his 1970 essay, The Servant As Leader, said “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.” In other words, the servant-leader exudes “Country Above Self”. One has to serve first with distinction in order to acquire qualifications to lead.
President Barack Hussein Obama’s term in office has come to its constitutionally-mandated end. He served first as a community organizer in the belly of Chicago’s inner city. There, he established the street credibility to offer himself for political office. His active community and political tenure offer timely and invaluable reminders and lessons for the advance of democracy in St. Kitts and Nevis. Chief among them is the instruction found in Proverbs 3:27 which reads “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” Thus, public service is all about “The good the government can do” (recently cited by UK Prime Minister, Teresa May). The flip side of “good you can do” is “goods you can get”, a sign of galloping egotism.
Nineteenth century British politician Leonard Henry Courtney wrote “There is an imperialism that deserves all honor and respect – an imperialism of service in the discharge of great duties. But with too many, it is the sense of domination and aggrandizement, the glorification of power”. People know Obama is not puffed up; he was about service first. The evidence lies in his high approval ratings as he exists office. Swept into the Oval Office on a huge wave of youthful expectation, Obama seemingly sustained the “Yes We Can” spirit with endless optimism and “grace under fire”. However, eight years in the intense glare of high political office exacts a psychological toll manifesting physically in ways such as the rapid graying of the hair. Another sign of mounting mental distress in politics is increasing difficulty buttoning one’s jacket.
In his farewell address, President Obama reflected powerfully on the schism caused by race in the USA. He said “There’s a second threat to our democracy – one as old as our nation itself. After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” This outpouring summarizes the stiff and unrelenting opposition he endured. Literally seconds after his 2008 election, Republicans openly vowed to make him a “one-term president”. Every pro-justice initiative was blocked – affordable healthcare for all, gun control, marriage equality, rapprochement with Cuba and respect for the rights of Palestinians, to name several.
To my mind, the Republican failure game was personal and race was in the mix. The height of insult was the mindless tantrum questioning Obama’s citizenship. However irritated he was by the Trump-inspired trivia, Barack did not wallow in the mud-slinging because as Michele said “When they go low, you go high”.
Yet, rather than allowing Obama to quietly exit the White House, the haters scream “repeal Obamacare”. This is the ultimate stab in the back because affordable healthcare was Obama’s signature achievement. I sense a jealous rage similar to that which caused imperialists to distort Africa’s history and to systematically destroy or steal its ingenuity. Deep-seated hospitality towards others is destructive because its breeds rule by fear, favour, affection and ill-will. In those circumstances, there is no rule of law but rule by our law.
The old people say “Don’t cry for those going but for those coming”. Nostalgia for the Obama years has already set in. There is palpable worry that January 20th will bring leader-first extremism to the White House. Compulsive, early morning, “in your face” communications by Twitter underscore the point. The despair is justified because such behaviour is consistent with the diagnosis “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” whereby affected individuals are “excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity”. When self-worth is elevated to pathological levels, there is a feeling of being better or more entitled than others. However, while some are anguished, supporters of leader-first types are salivating at the prospects of a global oligarchy.
There are lessons for the advance of democracy in St. Kitts and Nevis. Racism is not a defining issue in the Federation, however, injustice thrives as rape, neglect of children, victimization, price- and fee-gouging, criminalization of marijuana and protectionism in calypso, among other things. Solutions lie in the return of servant-first leadership displayed by heroes of government of, for and by the people. Additionally, as John Philpot Curan (Irish orator, born 1750) wrote: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance”. Therefore, hibernation between elections is not an option. Entitlement and power-tripping can lead to disregard of fiduciary duty. The antidote is an active system of checks and balances to counter misuse and abuse of political power, and the potential for the same. Such is currently playing out in the confirmation hearings for the Trump cabinet. In like manner, commentators and talk show callers in the Federation lift their voices against violations of the solemn ministerial oath of service.
Like good medicine, public questioning and speaking truth to power are painful but necessary things. The charge goes out to Civil Society to be the non-partisan pillar of research, fact-checking and dispassionate discourse. Professional bodies, in particular, should be unafraid to advocate for and implement expected “Good Governance” standards. As malfeasance and misfeasance in government demonstrate, there is absolute need for unambiguous constitutional provisions covering integrity in public service, autonomy of the civil service, unimpeded access to government information, expenditure accountability, recall elections, scheduling of parliamentary motions and term limits for the heads of government.
Speaking of term limits, Obama recently shared that such a constitutional mandate serves to refresh the presidency. This wisdom emerged during an interview when he was asked about his party’s comprehensive loss at the polls during his watch. Was he to blame? Obama could have dismissed this pointed question by shouting “Don’t be rude” or invoking his right not to activate an answer. However, with consummate poise, he calmly admitted the Presidency can be a bubble which causes disconnect with the daily struggles of real people.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of a US think tank, The Center for Talent Innovation, poignantly said “There are six elements of gravitas critical to leadership: grace under fire, decisiveness, emotional intelligence and the ability to read a room, integrity and authenticity (people don’t like fakes), a vision that inspires others, and a stellar reputation.” Indeed, people do not like fakes. As for substance in government, Obama will be revered for his candor, his unruffled and self-deprecating character, and for his exemplification of the leader who is servant first.