The Humble Leader (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 12 November 2017


Less than two weeks ago, I was standing before the monument to the Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge, just outside the city of Arras, France. It’s a place beyond words. The monument stands in the middle of 250 acres of open land. Two soaring towers of beautiful gleaming golden-white marble represent the ten thousand English and French Canadian lives lost during the battle at Vimy Ridge, waged between April 9th and 12th, 1917.  The towers are so tall that you get vertigo looking up at them.

Names of the ten thousand dead are carved in alphabetical order around the base of the monument, names of soldiers, most whom their bodies were never individually identified. A few giant allegorical figures are placed strategically around the towers. None of the figures are triumphant. Instead, they represent helplessness, loss, the values that were fought for, a soldier breaking the sword in hopes of peace, angels looking up to the heavens. One female figure stands alone beyond the others, her head bowed in sorrow as she surveys the killing fields below. She’s known as Canada Bereft or Mother Canada, mourning her dead. 

A hundred years have passed, and still the area is surrounded by an undulating landscape that covers the hundreds of trenches and tunnels that were dug during the battle. Sheep graze beside signs that say “Danger. Entrée interdite. Munitions non éclatées. Danger. No entry. Undetonated explosives.” After 100 years the landmines are still a threat to anyone who weighs more than a sheep. There’s something so difficult for the mind to fathom in this place of death where the scars of war are so still visible and yet covered by new life, by grass, by trees that have taken root and now thrive. It is a heart-stopping, beautiful and sad place. 

As we walked around the moment and surveyed the trenches, I thought of what this landscape looked like in 1917. It was mud and rubble then, soaked in blood. I knew that I’d be coming back to Montreal, to this Remembrance Day Sunday, to talk about humble leadership. Who was humble then? All those men in the trenches, sharing a wretched intimacy of basic needs, of life and death. The hierarchy of command is carved into the list of names on the monument. Sargent-Majors, Captains, Corporals, Privates, each group of soldiers listed in order by rank. The designations are subtle. You have to look carefully to see them. 

In the museum at the visitors centre, there’s a display of stone carvings that some of the soldiers had carved in the chalk walls of the tunnels as they waited for long hours in the dark without fresh air or sunlight. Some of the carvings are artistic, others very simplistic. In the exhibition,  beside each carving, is a biography of the soldier who created it. To see those simple carvings was to witness the hours of boredom, fear and frustration, and the knowledge that death was waiting above ground.

What about the leaders? The ones who weren’t on the battle field, who sent their commands from a distance? Still, to this day, we really don’t have any clear answers to why the First World War began. Historians continue to debate the question. I look at the pictures that we display here each year on Remembrance Day, especially the members of this congregation who served during the First World War and lost their lives. There are so many of them lost to a single community. Each one representing thousands more who died. An entire generation broken, because of what? Because of a single assassination? A family feud between royals? The egos of world leaders? 

As one historian writes: The “fatal mixture of political misjudgement, fear of loss of prestige and stubborn commitments on all sides of a very complicated system of military and political alliances of European states” led to the descent into all-out war. 

Or as another historian laments, the alliances before the war could have preserved the fragile peace, if it hadn’t been for the shift in the mindset of Europe’s leaders “who ultimately came to think in terms of military solutions rather than diplomatic ones.”

As David and I travelled, we visited restored cathedrals and villages that had been damaged and under siege during two world wars, now filled with people who seemed to go about life as though they had only known peace for generations. Images of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan came to mind and I wondered, will there be a day a hundred years from now when tourists will stand before restored sacred sites in those countries? Where are the humble leaders that will guide us into a restored future?

I read these quotes in yesterday’s paper about the growing tensions between Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iran, and I thought, these could have been written a hundred years ago:

“It’s a dangerous situation now. It only takes one provocation, another reaction, and it can get all of a sudden completely out of control.”

“There are so many fuses, so little communication, so many risks of something exploding, that there’s little chance of something not going wrong. Everything needs to go right to maintain calm.”

I go looking for examples of hope, of humble leadership. “Humble leadership?” someone says to me. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” But I find studies (thanks to Harvard Business Review and that argue that humble leadership is the only answer if you want to create innovative institutions in a diverse world. This is advice for the business world as well as for religious leadership. 

Here’s what the journals tell us about the ideals of humble leadership: Humble leaders share mistakes as teachable moments. They make it okay for others to be fallible. Humble leaders don’t debate. They engage in dialogue instead. They step back to learn from others. Humble leaders are okay with ambiguity and uncertainty. They make space for others to come up with solutions, and they model being followers, empowering others to lead.

Who are those humble leaders who’ve modelled for us what it means to empower others? There are the obvious names that come to mind: Gandhi, who said “Wait! There go my people. I must rush to catch up to them. For I am their leader.” There’s the Dalaï Lama or perhaps Nelson Mandela. I search for new names and find Jose Mujica, former president of Uruguay, who chose to live on a small farm during his presidency rather than the presidential palace, drove a 1987 VW bug, and gave most of his salary to charity. He said, “We're a small country without a presidential plane. We could have bought a plane, but we bought an emergency medical helicopter to save lives instead.”

I find Joyce Banda, once the most powerful woman in Africa, who became Malawi's first female president. She’s a woman who left her abusive husband and built foundations to help other women.

But I am suspicious of stories of great leaders who I only know through books and articles. How humble are they in reality? Why is it that we’re more impressed by men or male identified figures who act against the norm, who do not swagger but speak with quiet wisdom? What about women, about female-identified figures, in roles of leadership? If they’ve risen to positions of recognition and power, we imagine that they’ve broken through glass ceilings, that they have to be tough and even abrasive to make it in what is still a man’s world.  But the humble female leader? Maybe we reserve that image for the occasional Mother Teresa. 

Sharing mistakes as teachable moments, engaging in dialogue rather than debate, stepping back to empower others, aren’t those qualities that are often idealized as motherhood? Isn't that what women were expected to do for generations while men went off to war? But I’m not just talking about women. I’m talking about people who don’t want to live by the rules of the system anymore, who don’t want toughness and violence to be the proposed solution for every problem.

Those of us who believe that we can save the world with compassion and humility are told flat out that we are naive, that you can only fight fire with fire.

But this is where I find hope. Hope comes in the small steps that suddenly become an avalanche of change. When a critical mass of people refuse to keep doing things the old way, change can and does happen. 

I want to end with a personal story. This past year I was invited to join a group called Maria’M. It’s a group of Muslim and Christian women who meet about once a quarter to share a meal and to talk about issues of faith and common concern. The proceedings happen entirely in French (which is always truly humbling for me!) For a while now, the group has wanted to open a conversation with Jewish women. I was asked if I could help facilitate having a gathering here, since the Unitarian Church feels like a safe and neutral space and maybe I knew some Jewish women who’d be willing to share in this exchange. 

A group of four of us planned the program. My friend Sharon Gubbay-Helfner agreed to represent the Jewish guests, and one Muslim member and a Christian member of the group were the key organizers. There was a bit of fear and apprehension as we worked on this. The Jewish women we invited needed to be sure that they would be entering into safe space. If they were going to talk about their faith and identity, would they be free to do this fully? 

Sharon is a trained facilitator in a method of dialogue called compassionate listening, and she agreed to teach this method to the group. She is the quintessential humble leader. She led the group with such tremendous grace. 
In some ways, you've experienced a form of compassionate listening here. It's quite simple. One person talks, while the other listens, fully, compassionately and without comment or question. We focused on our joys, frustrations and dreams as Jewish, Muslim and Christian women.  Sharon invited us into pairs, first beginning with the sharing of our joys. After the first sharing in pairs, we talked as a group about the experience. There were about 24 of us. Many of the women were quite surprised by the exercise. To have someone truly witness what you have to say without comment was an entirely new experience.
We changed partners and we shared our frustrations as women in our different traditions. This turned out to be so powerful. To hear the sorrows of my Muslim partner gave me a direct, painful view of Islamophobia that many Muslim women face, that secondhand accounts could never convey. We shed tears together. 

At the end, we changed partners again and shared our dreams. I don't know all of what was expressed that night. We didn't walk out with an agenda for the future. But what I saw were Jews, Muslims and Christians hugging each other and promising each other that this was a beginning. Humble leadership was shared. 

I can't say that we can stop a world on the brink of war through compassionate listening.  But I truly believe this is where we start. Through grace and humility, through the opening of our hearts we create the tools for peace. If world leaders and others are building their arsenals of weapons of destruction, we have to keep building our own arsenals of tools of peace. We have to build storehouses of tools of peace for the next generations to find, so that they can take up the arms of love we have left for them, so that they may carry the dream forward. 

To dream of peace is not a fool's delusion. The real delusion is believing that power justifies violence. 

The beautiful, tall statue of a woman in grief stands overlooking the fields surrounding Vimy Ridge. She knows that she is mourning for a war that was supposed to end all wars. She remains a glowing image in my memory and in my heart. I will continue to mourn the loss of soldiers who serve in wars that they have neither started nor have an option to stop, and I will keep acting for peace with every small step possible. 

Amen. Blessed Be. Namasté.

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