At the heart of servant leadership is the desire to see our labor and others’ labor as the expression of meaningful work that creates true value for all stakeholders. This includes our families and communities. The following article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic raises serious questions about the negative effects of lifting an over-pursuit of identity at our jobs to the level of worship, what Thompson calls “workism.”
Thompson writes – “What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work. … Maybe the logic here isn’t economic at all. It’s emotional—even spiritual. The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves.”
True servant leadership wrestles with this idolatry of work by seeking to serve the highest needs the whole person, embedded in the whole of life, including our passions and commitments beyond for-pay labor. Indeed, servant-leaders are acutely aware of the shadow side of making work the dominant source for meeting our highest needs.
Robert K. Greenleaf’s “best test” of the servant-leader, properly understood, places our work in life’s broader context: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?”
Health, wisdom, freedom, autonomy, and service, including care for “the least of these,” are not limited to the workplace. These characteristics (and others like them), when fully realized, give energy and meaning in every dimension of life. Work is a crucial component, but only a piece of the whole.
Here’s the link to Thompson’s article. I’d love to hear what you think.