I recently introduced my teenage boys to one of my favourite films – The Matrix. Released in 1999, the film describes a future in which reality perceived by humans is actually the Matrix, a simulated world created by machines in order to pacify and subdue the human population. Upon learning this, computer programmer,Neo, is drawn into a rebellion against the machines.
There’s a scene in The Matrix where Neo first enters the computer-generated world and is learning to live counter to what he has been programmed his whole life. He is with his mentor, Morpheus, and they are walking against the tide of hundreds of people on a city’s streets. Morpheus, overcoming the confines of his mind, is able to walk without bumping into anyone – parting the proverbial Red Sea of people. Neo, on the other hand, bumps into everybody and is unable to avoid all the tide of people in his path.
I believe that the experience of a Christ-centred servant leader is more like Neo’s experience than Morpheus’s. In Grab a Towel I argue that servant leadership is counter-cultural to the norms of leadership prevalent in the West today. The reality is that servant leaders have to go against the flow of contemporary wisdom and cultural norms. But going against the flow inevitably means encountering obstacles and opposition. The task of Christ-centred servant leadership means going against the tide of popular opinion, standing up for righteousness, and calling others to do the same. This is a call that will inevitably result in opposition and criticism. At times, it will unavoidably lead servant leaders to question their sanity. It is a bumpy and tumultuous road. Jesus called it carrying our cross – the cross being the ultimate symbol of self-sacrifice and self-denial.
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul gives these words, “Keep your head in all situations” (2 Timothy 4:5) Keep your head! Don’t lose the plot; don’t succumb to the temptations that periods of intense stress and opposition bring. Seek to remain calm under pressure. Maintain your poise. Guthrie says we are to “cultivate unruffled alertness.” I like that… the equal and opposite dangers in times of immense pressure is that we “zone out” or we “stress out.” Rather, we need to find the middle ground where we are alert to the dangers, but continue to keep our cool and navigate the storms with faith, hope and love.
The wonderful Rudyard Kipling poem, “If” opens with the words, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” It is a big and important “If” because the damage can be disastrous if we lose our heads. Leaders who rant or sulk, leaders who are inconsistent, leaders who are prone to losing their temper; these leaders break the trust of their followers. And trust is a priceless commodity, particularly when navigating difficult waters. The leader that keeps their head, and who maintains dignity and poise, gains the confidence of those in their care and will have their influence elevated as a result.
When everything seems to be falling apart; when going against the flow takes you into turbulent waters; when the people you lead are beginning to feel disconcerted and under threat… then, keep your head! That is the way to serve others. Cultivate unruffled alertness! Avoid flapping. Don’t panic. Grab a Towel and remember why you are doing what you’re doing. Keeping the bigger picture in mind will enable you to keep your head and face the challenges you are facing with dignity and poise… a Christ-like quality that should be a hallmark of leaders following in his footsteps.