Keith: Author and educator urges servant leadership

[Story and photo by Mike Foley: Originally published in the BYU–Hawaii electronic “newsroom” on March 27, 2007]

Dr. Kent KeithDr. Kent M. Keith [pictured at left], who in 1968 wrote a series of “paradoxical commandments” as a teenage undergraduate at Harvard that have since spread across the globe and formed the basis for several current best-selling books, urged BYU-Hawaii students in the Honors forum on March 27 to follow a service model of leadership to find more personal meaning in life.

Keith — who grew up in Honolulu, became a Rhodes Scholar and more recently served as president of Chaminade University of Honolulu (a Catholic school; he’s a Protestant) — told the students, “I’m here to encourage you, because I think as you look out into the world now-days it’s easy to be discouraged. There are good things going on everywhere, but it’s so hard sometimes when you think of war, starvation, disease, genocide, the threat of nuclear destruction… There’s a lot of suffering going on. There’s no end of natural disasters.”

Keith drew a comparison to the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk who, when he foresaw the destruction that awaited Israel at the hands of the Chaldeans, “was filled with anguish. He wondered what God was doing. What’s so inspiring about Habakkuk is that devastating news did not affect his faith in God. The Book of Habakkuk ends with him rejoicing in the Lord.”

“Each of us can have faith,” Keith continued. He said believes God created us to be happy and wants us to discover His will for our lives. “Trying to be deeply happy is not a selfish thing. I think when you are deeply happy, you are best able to help others to be deeply happy as well.”

“Finding personal meaning is the key to being deeply happy,” he said, suggesting the “most importance source” of personal meaning — based on a “huge consistency” found in about 3,000 informal surveys he’s conducted over the years — is family. Other top sources include giving and receiving love, intimate relationships, living by values, doing our personal best and a sense of accomplishment.

He also said the surveys showed him “popular symbols of success that we live with every day and we’re surrounded by them in our culture — power, wealth, fame — those are not important sources of meaning… [but] they can be tools to use to do something meaningful.”

“When you love people and you want to help them… live the service model of leadership,” Keith urged. He pointed out that Jesus was “very clear on this point” when he said “…whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants be first among you must be your slave [Matthew 20:27, NET].”

“The dominant model of leadership in our culture is not the service model. The dominant model is the power model,” Keith continued, explaining the latter forces conflict and defines success as gaining power. “People who seek power can easily become irrelevant… [and] disconnected from the people they’re supposed to be leading. People who want power can never get enough.”

“The service model is very different: The servant leader embarks on a quest to identify and meet the needs of others. That’s the essence of service leadership. Servant leaders begin by watching and listening. They don’t begin with the answer. They don’t begin with a program. They ask people questions that will help identify their hopes and dreams, their wants and needs.”

Keith pointed out this model can be discouraging and hard. “You’ve really got to love people… [and realize] change always takes time.” He also referred to his 10 “paradoxical commandments” that have been used by people around the world. For example, he said the Nobel Peace Prize winner and humanitarian, Mother Teresa, referred to them. His “commandments” are:

  • People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  • If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
  • If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
  • The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
  • Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
  • The biggest men with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
  • People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  • What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  • People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
  • Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

Though there are many things we can’t control, he said, “we can control our spiritual lives. We can live our values and be close to our families and friends, and we can do what we know is right, and good, and true — no matter what… The good news is, that’s where personal meaning comes from.”

“People need you. Nothing is more meaningful than loving and helping others,” he said. “When you look to the future, the stakes are high… What you do with your life is all the more important.”

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