The Leadership of Service

W. T. S. Thackara

As the earth is impelled through its elliptic orbit around the sun, it yearly marks off four points on this great cosmic clock of time: the solstices of winter and summer, and the equinoxes of spring and fall. Among practically all peoples these points, or rather periods, have been regarded as sacred seasons. In the West, mainly two have been accorded religious significance — in winter, Christmas and (in a symbolic sense) Hanukkah, and Easter-Passover in the spring. Generally speaking, these celebrations are remembrances of highly important spiritual events. But there occur also at these periods transitions of nature’s physical rhythms and, more particularly, of spiritual forces by which men individually and collectively are given the opportunity to both sow and reap the seeds and fruits of evolutionary experience. In modern theosophy, the four seasons are likened in quality to the four stages of a man’s life. The winter solstice, symbolized in Christianity by Jesus’ nativity, represents birth. The spring equinox which follows relates to the culmination of adolescence and a period of resurrection, or spiritual rebirth, of the higher faculties in man. Then comes the summer solstice, a time of maturity and full bloom of power, setting the stage for the grand finale of the sacred cycle: the fall equinox — a harvesting of the entire life’s effort.

As we are now journeying between the solstitial and equinoctial experiences of summer and fall, it is natural to reflect upon the significance and inner meaning of these oft-forgotten, but nevertheless important, conjunctions of man with physical and spiritual nature. In reading up on what has been said on this matter, and surveying the stream of ideas sparked by it, a central theme becomes apparent and, in one sense at least, seems to highlight the entire character of the period. That idea is leadership.

While it is easy to see the parallel between maturity and leadership, the thought impels us to ask what kind of leadership it is that gives this period its spiritual quality. What is it that marks a true leader? Is it someone who, possessing power, is head of a class, a corporation, a church, or a country? Not necessarily. A leader need not have worldly stature or authority. For instance, we can be leaders of ourselves, giving positive direction to the conduct of our lives. From the standpoint of evolution, leadership can refer also, and not in any egotistic sense, to moving in harmony with the advance guard of humanity so that our lives reflect to the best of our ability the character and virtue embodied by the true leaders of the race. Yet this tells us little about the essential quality of leadership. What, then, is it that makes a spiritual reformer, a king, a president — even you and me — real leaders?

Some time ago, I posed a question like this to a close friend whose life circumstances have brought him into intimate contact with leaders of many types, and who knows something of this quality in his own work. Genuine leadership, he said, is in the last analysis born from service. This has nothing to do with servitude; but in order to really be able to lead others, to be wise and effective in your leadership, you must first know how to serve others. In his entire experience, he continued, he has not been acquainted with one person whom he considered a true leader who had not endured the trials of a thorough and rigorous apprenticeship of service. And the best of these had served, or are serving, those who are themselves servers.

This thought, perhaps more than any other, not only has clarified my own understanding of leadership, but stands firmly as a beacon guiding the way through every kind of difficult situation. I also believe that this idea of service relates directly to, and brilliantly illuminates, the essential character of the summer and autumnal sacred seasons — that the qualities of service and devotion to mankind brought now to maturity provide us with the highest examples of genuine leadership.

The spiritual drama connected with the events of the summer solstice has been called the Great Renunciation. It is a time when a highly evolved soul — and yet in reality it can be any one of us — is faced with one of the greatest temptations to be met with in human experience: the temptation of personal advancement. To sacrifice individual progress, that is, to really conduct your life so that you think of and act for the welfare of others before yourself (if you think of yourself at all), is a demanding spiritual challenge. Indeed, some feel it is the most difficult task of all. Yet the record of history shows us illuminated and illuminating individuals — Christ, Buddha, and many others — whose all-encompassing and compassionate concern for every living thing has invariably been accompanied by what seems to us a martyrdom of their own personal lives. Certainly, if we measure by the impact and durability of their respective messages, these have been among the greatest leaders of mankind. In all cases, they have been the living symbols of altruistic service — a quality that is attained, not overnight in a flash of inspiration from on high, but by assiduous cultivation in the great field of everyday life.

In thinking about the fall equinox, sometimes called the Great Passing, or the Great Harvest, it seems that the summer period is a natural and necessary preparation for it. Not many details have been given about this last in the cycle of sacred seasons, except to say that it is a very holy time when those who have garnered all the necessary lessons of the human school have the opportunity to pass from the sight of men into higher grades. Here all the major elements of the previous seasons are synthesized and culminate in the paramount experience for a human being. If successful, the fully evolved individual has a momentous choice. He can merge with nirvana and enjoy its unspeakable bliss, thus severing all direct relations with the world of men; or he can make the supreme sacrifice of deferring these fruits and turn back to aid to those who follow behind on the road of evolution. As the ultimate form of service that we can envision, is this not the ultimate expression of leadership?

Here we see a marvelous elevation of service — from a prelude to leadership to the purest embodiment of it. Yet this is but its perfected form, the resulting efflorescence of a work of ages where leadership and service have always been basic though ever-refining elements in the crucible of spiritual endeavor.

As far off as this highest experience may seem, there is sure to be some practical wisdom in it for us in the here and now. If, perchance, we should be serious in our aspiration to become better men and women, it is possible that we may find ourselves drawn, like strings on a lute, into sympathetic resonance with the keynote struck at this approaching autumn period. And in this, we, too, might experience something of the spiritual drama associated with the great harvest. It is not easy to express in words the quality of spiritual character involved in a decision to defer the merited fruits of personal effort in favor of the opportunity to work, unrewarded, for a higher, nobler cause. But, in the luminous examples of the truly great leaders of all ages we have an inspiration.

We live today in difficult times when the whole concept of leadership is being carefully and even severely scrutinized, not only in our national capitals, but in every arena of human experience. It has been suggested that our present dilemma is but an effect of centuries of wrong thinking and wrong emphasis. Nearly a hundred years ago, one perceptive commentator said about Western civilization that because of the accentuation and glorification of the personality, which instills the competitive urge to outstrip one’s fellows, there eventually would be but one result: a relapse into the worst forms of selfish anarchy. How prophetic this sounds when we view some of the more tragic phases of our present situation. Yet ours is not unique. Other civilizations have suffered from similar maladies. We may take heart, though, in the fact that a remedy exists and has ever been the same: that all men should consider each other as brothers, not simply in thought, but in practice. And that when our duty is to lead — a duty which is always before us, whether it be leading ourselves or others — that our leadership be motivated from compassionate altruism born in the retort of selfless service to all beings.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)

There is one doctrine which may be called the Golden Thread — the Sutratman — of all the parts of the complete body of esoteric teaching. It is this: the fundamental oneness, the essential unity of man with the universe of which he is an inseparable because integral part; the absolute unity of man, a child of the universe, with his cosmic parent. In It we live and move and have our being; out of It we cannot ever go; we shall ever remain in It and with It. In this thought, majestic, grand, sublime, we find, if we are intuitive enough to see it, the solution of all the so-called "riddles" of human existence. On that fact reposes universal brotherhood, which is no fact of sentimental origin, no mere idea springing out of man's theories or theorizings about himself and the universe, but is an actuality of universal Being. — G. de Purucker

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