The Seeker and The Servant

If you aspire to lead, first inspire through service.

The story of the Servant Leader has had many incarnations. But its lesson is always the same. Here’s my version. I hope it inspires you as much as the original story inspired me.

Once upon a time, a group of learned friends gathered to discuss the concept of The Ultimate Truth. “Was there really such a thing as an Ultimate Truth”, one asked. “The diversity of human experience,” he said, “made truth a relative thing, often distorted and perverted to favor the few, at the expense of the many.”

One among the group told a tale of a place in the East where there existed a singular tribe, who had toiled across generations to understand and perfect an Ultimate Truth. As the wine flowed and an the evening wore on the group became fascinated with the story and, in time, it was decided that they would mount an expedition to find this tribe, and to discover, for themselves, it’s secret.

These were successful individuals, people of means and power, so it wasn’t long until the expedition was underway. After much debate, it was decided to engage an entourage comprised of servants from the many eastern countries where the tribe was thought to have lived and to seek their advice on provisions, protections and directions.

Thus equipped the expedition set forth. It soon became clear that the traits that had made each of it’s learned participants so successful lead to disagreements . Their authoritarian nature often angered others on the expedition. Everyone seemed to be certain of what to do. As a result, there were many heated debates that often brought the expedition to a standstill.

But among the servants, one emerged who seemed to be able to calm each crisis and focus everyone’s thoughts. He did so not by decree, nor by threat or authority, but through compassion, a desire to understand and a set of carefully framed questions that seemed to melt disagreement into consensus and guide the larger expedition forward with energy and confidence.

All went well until one morning when the group awoke to find the servant had vanished. What shall we do now? How shall we proceed? Without the servant’s influence, the expedition fell into disarray. With no small amount of confusion, anger and discomfort, lifelong relationships were shattered. The original intent of the journey was forgotten. The quest was ultimately abandoned and all returned to their homes.

But the man who had originally shared the legend, couldn’t forget it. He struggled to understand why these great friends, committed to a common goal had lost both their direction and their friendship. And what of the mysterious servant who had such a powerful impact on the expedition? Why did he leave? Where did he go?

Such was his obsession that the man decided to venture, alone, back into the wilderness. He made careful notes of how the servant had behaved, the things he said, the questions he asked. “The Seeker”, as the man came to be known, decided to emulate these behaviors in what would become his life’s quest. He sold all but his most basic worldly possessions, embarking on his journey with the notebooks on which he had written what he learned from the last expedition, and from the servant who so impacted it.

He wandered in search of Ultimate Truth for many years.

He came to realize that the wisdom he thought he had was not really wisdom at all. He made mistakes: decisions that slowed his progress, causing him pain and suffering. Studying these, he altered his attitude of mind and his habits of behavior. As he pressed on, he found himself opening his heart and seeking to learn by acting exactly as had the servant who had helped guide the original expedition.

Along the way, he discovered that there were others who acted as he did. He found them in the halls of power, but he also many in the darkest slums. Each, he discovered, had a gift to give him. And The Seeker worked hard to uncover what it might be. He was also surprised to realize that those who didn’t practice the new behaviors that were becoming so ingrained in his being could also teach him. He came to understand that his quest would not be successful without listening, learning and seeking to serve everyone he met.

Slowly tidbits of information about the mysterious tribe began to reveal themselves. They were said to have a magical awareness of everything around them. They listened to everyone’s story with a genuine empathy that radiated peace and healing wherever they went. With these tools in hand, the tribe was able to envision the future and plan for it. It was true that they also experienced pain and failure, but faith in their purpose drove them forward, out of the deepest valleys and toward the highest summits.

One day, The Seeker found what he sought. The place was just as the legend had foretold. It was not a place of perfection and it’s people faced the same travails we associate with civilized life. But with a heart for serving a greater good, they could overcome every challenge, find common ground amid every disagreement and to build lives that were, by all definition, mutually fulfilling and happy.

The seeker recognized several of the tribe. They had revealed themselves as servants at other places along his journey, each teaching him a lesson that ultimately had made this discovery possible. When he asked one if he might know the tribal Leader, the servant smiled and beckoned him toward a simple hut near the edge of the village.

In the shadows, The Seeker perceived a man, surrounded by a ring of children who appeared to be continually asking questions. The Leader listened patiently. He gently answered every one, often asking questions that challenged the children to apply what they had learned, to solve, together, the ever more complex riddles they placed before him.

In time, the leader turned so that his face was fully visible. The Seeker instantly recognized him as the servant from the expedition. He, who the wisest men perceived as the lowliest servant, in fact held the secrets of the tribe within his heart and mind. Through his service, he was able to inspire the others to move forward. Without him, the expedition was a failure.

The Seeker fell to his knees and bowed with humility. But there was still a cloud across his face. The leader guessed his thoughts. “You want to ask me why I left the expedition,” he said.

The Seeker nodded. “Awareness of the gifts of others is only half awareness,” the leader said. “It isn’t until we are self aware that true growth can begin.”

“And what of the future,” The Seeker asked. “I feel that I have been given so much. But each new insight only opens the door to more questions.”

“Becoming is a lifelong quest,” the leader said. “We are imperfect beings but the wisdom that is revealed in the very act of service can guide us toward life’s sunset, with great power in our hands and peace in our hearts. This is The Ultimate Truth.

It seemed that the audience was over. The Seeker bowed and began to back toward the entrance of the tent. Then a final question entered his mind. “What is the ultimate act of service,” he asked.

The leader held out his hands, palms raised upward. One by one, the children who surrounded him took hold until the circle was unbroken. The leader spoke just three words. It was barely a whisper, but the three words would become the most important lesson of The Seeker’s quest.

“Pass it on.”