In a downtown coffee shop, Tupelo Mayor-elect Jack Reed Jr. used his thumbnail to trace an upside-down pyramid on his leather appointment book. He said that in older, traditional structures, authority is concentrated in one person, a boss, at the top, and that person disseminates orders to subordinates.
“It’s a top-down model,” said Reed, who takes office July 6. His vision of leadership, he said, is different.
Tracing his nail back up the pyramid, Reed explained that a servant leader is one who empowers others to take greater responsibility and ultimately, to achieve success.
“It’s a bottom-up approach. A leader’s job is not to talk down, but to push everyone else up,” said Reed.
Most people have heard the term “servant leader,” perhaps used to describe a pastor, or a philanthropic businessman. Reed used it as his signature tag-line throughout his mayoral campaign.
Essayist Robert Greenleaf popularized the term in the late 1970s to describe a form of leadership that differed from authoritarian structures. The basic concept, however, goes back at least to the teachings of Jesus, as in Mk 10:42-45.
Reed said his understanding of a servant leader comes from the works of native Mississippi author James Autry, specifically his book “Love and Profit: The Act of Caring Leadership.”
“That was one of the first books that really went against the hard-nosed school of thought that said emphasis on profit, and pushing employees hard was the way to go,” said Reed.
Like Autry, Reed, who is Methodist, says there’s a theological dimension to how he uses the term. “Jesus is the model,” he said, scratching lines through the pyramid he’d drawn.
Reed said his faith is an integral part of who he is and, to that extent, he’s certain it will inform the way he governs. However, he’s a firm believer in the separation of church and state.
“Faith is too important to leave to the state,” said Reed, smiling broadly, a deep but, as he admits, practiced smile, honed by years of working in the downtown department store his grandfather started. He added that religion needn’t be insinuated into every decision he makes.
“I don’t think the Old Testament, or the New Testament, or even the apocrypha, answers whether or not we should expand the airport,” said Reed, laughing. He greeted a friend who walked in, then jotted down the man’s suggestion about beautifying a stretch of roadway.
When I asked him which of Greenleaf’s 10 characteristics of servant leaders he thought he possessed, Reed politely deferred, then said, “We don’t need 400 clones of Jack Reed Jr. working for the city of Tupelo.” Staring at a piece of local artwork, he said being a good steward of the city’s substantial human resources would be an important priority in his administration.
Reed said his faith has taught him that a life well-lived is an “abundant” life, one in which people can tackle hard issues but still enjoy their work and hear each other’s differences without becoming intransigent. He said his vision of servant leadership is to set an example of strength and competence but also of fairness and receptivity.
“I don’t know what specifically this will be, yet,” said Reed. “But, I want the city council and I to have an early success, and to celebrate that success, and to have people be proud of what we’ve done together.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.