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    Live the Virtues of a True Leader

    Leadership is not primarily about giving orders, but about serving others

    By Gerald Korson 9/27/2021
    True leadership means serving a cause higher than oneself. (Spirit Juice Studios)

    Men of faith are called to be leaders in their families, their communities, their workplace, and the Church. Leadership, however, is poorly understood. Too often it is equated with barking orders or occupying a position of power. Leading others may involve these elements, but that’s not what true leadership is all about.

    Moreover, there are no “born leaders,” despite the common expression, because to become a true leader requires work, development and formation.

    “Leadership is not about temperament, but about character,” said Alexandre Havard, author of Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence. “Leaders are not born, they’re made because they have practiced character.”

    And what are the key character traits of a leader? Service, humility, magnanimity and self-control.

    That’s the perspective of Havard and other Catholic leaders interviewed for the “Leadership” episode of the Into the Breach video series, produced by the Knights of Columbus. The series and its accompanying study guide are based on the 2015 apostolic exhortation of the same name by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix. In that document, Bishop Olmsted challenges all Catholic men to “do the work of Christ’s soldiers in the world today.”

    Humble Service

    Jesus is our model of servant leadership and humility: The Son of God became man, humbling himself in order to lead us to the Father and to eternal life.

    The term “servant leader” can seem like an oxymoron; “servant” sounds like an underling, while “leader” is a superior. And we might picture a humble person as a spineless pushover who takes no initiative of his own. How do we reconcile these terms?

    Jesus demonstrated servant leadership throughout his life, but most remarkably at the Last Supper when he washed his apostles’ feet. It was an example, Jesus told them, of how they must serve one another.

    Serving others and inspiring them to do likewise provides a model of leadership. It says, “Follow me in this virtuous way of living for others.” When we exemplify the service and humility of Christ, we inspire others to follow us and to draw closer to him.

    “Service is strong in its meekness and zeal combined together, that you serve a cause that’s higher than yourself,” said Cameron Thompson, a member of the Virtuous Leadership Institute. “We are all called to be leaders, to really achieve greatness in whatever sphere that you’re called to.”

    That’s how a man is called to lead his family. Certainly he teaches and directs his children as necessary to form them in faith, in character and to prepare them to become mature and responsible Catholic adults. But he must do so above all by example, as a man of prayer and virtue himself. And he lives his leadership in humble service, or stewardship, sacrificing himself daily for the good of his family.

    “Headship is rooted in service,” said Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, author of the book Behold the Man: A Catholic Vision of Male Spirituality. “A man is the head of his family precisely because he is the chief steward of his wife and children.”

    A servant leader is one who gives his life for others, willing even to die for them. Rare is the man who will literally die for his wife, his children or a friend. But every man must “die to himself” each day by sacrificing his own wants for his family.


    For Havard, leadership really begins with magnanimity, the awareness that one is called to greatness. Aristotle defined a magnanimous man as “one who considers himself worthy of great things.” Christians ought to think themselves worthy of greatness because they are sons of God, and there’s no status higher than that, Havard said.

    But how does magnanimity line up with humility and service?

    “It takes magnanimity to say, ‘I am not just a sinner, I am a son of God, and I want to live out my divine sonship, and I want to help people discover this divine sonship in their lives,’” Havard said.

    Thompson agreed. “Leadership itself is humility and magnanimity in action: that is to say, pursuing and achieving greatness by bringing out the greatness in those that I lead.”

    Robert Yates, a 30-year veteran of the Air Force who was deployed to Saudi Arabia as a squadron commander, knows a bit about servant leadership from experience.

    “You can use your authority to lead, or you can use your leadership ability to get people to follow you,” Yates said. “You have to smell like the sheep. You have to spend time with them. ... You’ve got to talk the talk and walk the walk.”

    He cited St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. Padre Pio — in addition to Christ on the cross — as models of servant leaders who have inspired others to greatness.


    Jesus also modeled another key to leadership, and that is self-control. St. Thomas Aquinas would tell us that virtues are formed by good habits, and good habits are developed through self-control, prayer and sacramental grace. Self-control is not just about suppressing our vices but building our virtues.

    “Self-mastery is about restraining evil passions and desires, but also I need to energize noble passions,” Thompson explained. “If you simply restrain, you become boorish and tasteless.” A leader, he added, needs to “be excited, be driven, because then you can draw other people along with you and help them achieve truly great things.”

    Leadership is about character, after all, and character must be formed and developed through effort, discipline and grace. A virtuous character makes for a virtuous and true servant leader. That’s what Catholic men must become in order to lead their families and communities amid the challenges they face.

    “Life is short, and eternity is long,” Thompson said. “We may like the idea of virtuous leadership, and we may be inspired by the idea of ‘going into the breach.’ But so long as we remain sitting in our chairs, and not jumping in, we remain just spectators and we’re not engaging in the fight.”

    To view episodes of the Into the Breach video series and to access the study and other resources for promoting the series in your parish, visit

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