Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.


Servant Leadership (Part I)

USS Kentucky
For this week and next week's religion column in the Tribune & Georgian I interviewed recently retired Mike McKinnon (Captain USN, ret.) who until recently commanded Submarine Base Kings Bay as it was recognized as the top Navy installation in the world. In the column for today I write:

I met Mike McKinnon for lunch last week to talk about what it means to him to be a leader. The retired Navy Captain and former commander of Submarine Base Kings Bay shared that he had only recently come to realize that his leadership style is what many others refer to as servant leadership. This is a style of leadership that looks to the needs of those being led.

USS Kentucky“My life took a different twist in the summer of ’98,” he says. It was then that Mike struggled with whether he would take command of the Kentucky, a ballistic missile submarine then based out of Kings Bay.

“I got overwhelmed with the responsibility and the impact I would have on other people’s lives,” he says recalling that moment of decision.

Mike knew that he had a burden for people and that in taking command of the boat, he would be affecting the lives of the men on that boat and their families back home. Mike knew the type of leader he wanted to be and he knew that his leadership style would involve risk.

Looking to the example of Jesus as the prototype of a leader, Mike saw that Jesus was empathetic. He took time to build up his disciples and he trained them to each be successful in their own way. Mike could see in the Gospels how Jesus prepared his disciples for greatness without their ever knowing it. This was the model of leadership Mike wanted for his crew on the Kentucky.

“Part of my success as a leader is determined by whether the people I lead are better people,” Mike said. “Are they more successful?”

Mike recalls the first inspection of the Kentucky. He gave the men room to prepare themselves. That first inspection was below average. “That was the best thing to happen to that ship,” Mike remembers. He continued to give the men room to learn and to grow and the next inspection was above average and they did even better the next time.

What made the difference? Without any reference to his faith, Mike did his best to follow Jesus’ example of complete communication, ongoing encouragement, and concern for those being led. As Mike would read from John Maxwell, a favorite author of his on leadership, “Leadership is influence.” Mike would learn that leadership is not control.

Mike pointed out to me how the church in the book of Acts was growing fast and in the midst of that growth it was clear that they were taking care of their people. The early church followed Jesus’ method of being more concerned about the people. It’s not that either Jesus or the church we find in Acts did not make hard choices. They made lots of them. But Jesus and that early church were people focused, seeing the individual.

In that sense, it was easy to see why Mike is quick to deflect any attention away from his self, his own personal achievements. This isn’t humility, so much as fact. A leader following the example of Jesus will never accomplish anything on their own. So no servant leader should ever be able to rightly take the credit. The credit for accomplishments is shared as the leader’s job is to equip and empower the next level of leadership to take charge.

“Develop your people and they will exceed your wildest expectations,” Mike said. “If I make my people successful, then me, my ship, and my base will be successful.”

For Mike this translated into being concerned about the families of his crew. No sailor preoccupied with the needs of the family can serve to his full potential. Similarly, it’s a matter of trying to see what the sailor needs. What training should he be sent to? What further communication does he need to understand the task at hand?

And then there is fun. Submarine service involves sacrifice for both the sailor and the family. For Mike this meant that fun had to be built in to the job. “You can laugh in the workplace and still get the job done right,” he said.

Making room for laughter is a matter of balancing the need to meet performance objectives, with the need to create an environment in which people can thrive. People thrive when they are enjoying what they do.

This is why a servant leadership style is effective. Servant leadership means showing genuine concern for those you lead and taking their needs seriously. Get this right and you can lead by influence rather than oppression.

For Mike the motivating factor in living out his faith is that he wants that whatever he does, to be done for the Lord. This comes through in some of his favorite verses of scripture (Colossians 3:13, Philippians 2: 13, and Ephesians 6:5-9) each of which speaks of doing what you do as if it is done for God.

Although Mike doesn’t endorse the following, he noted that one the other ways of meeting objectives is to force people to do what you want. For example, a boss can scare people with the threat of losing their job and control their every move and action so they do exactly what is needed. In this manner, Mike said you can get people to do what you want for the short run. But in the process you will also find that they will only do what you ask and will never look for ways to improve.

“Some leadership styles depend on success at any cost, including the cost to people,” Mike said in observing that he could never have been that kind of leader.

This is part one of a two-part article which will conclude in next Friday’s paper. Next week the conversation with Mike McKinnon continues with a look at some of the practical aspects of living into this style of leadership.



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