The president need look no further than the Constitution for exhortations to remain humble. The concept of enumerated powers, the “advice and consent” of the Senate, the president’s constitutionally mandated separation from the amendment process–these things remind our commander in chief that he is not only a leader but also a steward of a system that predates and will outlive him.
The Bush years have given America an image of a chief executive who looks all too rarely to the Constitution and often seems to be on a hunt for loopholes when he pays the document a glance. Our next president, of course, will be a former senator–someone familiar with the impact of an imperious and overbearing executive on our government.
Perhaps our next president will be a former professor of constitutional law and a man inclined to look toward–instead of around–our founding document. But we as citizens should not hope blindly that a text penned more than two centuries ago can serve as a sufficient call to humility for a man or woman sweeping into the Oval Office after two brutal years of electioneering. We should instead expect that the virtue of humble leadership lies somewhere in our new president’s past. We should ask him to recall a time when he led without occupying the most powerful seat in the land, and to treat the presidency as a vehicle for service.
My call to “servant leadership”–in the words of camp director Ken Atkinson–comes from a 400-acre plot of land in the foothills southwest of Denver. There, at Geneva Glen Camp, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to take care of other people’s children for nine weeks each summer. I’ve been given a chance to experience the adulation of 6- and 7-year olds, many of them away from home for the first time. And I’ve had the pleasure of shaping the experience of the 14- and 15-year olds who return to Geneva Glen every summer for old friends and new, for the freedom that comes with spending every day under the blue sky, for the exhilaration and safety of a home away from home.
A camp counselor has quite a bit of power over the kids in his care. He’s the legislator, the jury, the appellate judge and the executive. He has the power to lead by fiat, threat or bribe. But the best counselors I’ve seen are those who lead subtly, who quietly shape their charges and who learn from every moment of childhood innocence. The best counselors put themselves in a position to learn from everyone–even the homesick 7-year-old who is too scared to get on a horse. The best counselors commit themselves fully to the welfare and enjoyment of the kids around them, remembering always that their power comes with the responsibility to serve the camp and the campers.
Our modern view of the “leader”–one embodied by Bill Clinton’s largely empty charisma and George W. Bush’s flight suit–has become completely disconnected from the vision of leadership enshrined at Geneva Glen Camp. Our leaders in Washington bear little resemblance to the men and women who use their power in the tireless service of Geneva Glen Camp. Politicians, it seems, have forgotten the moments in their own history when leadership meant more than the front page and was more precious than a big check from a wealthy donor.
A country isn’t a summer camp. Geneva Glen’s counselors aren’t responsible for writing a healthcare policy, ending a war or pushing bills through a recalcitrant legislature. But we–and everyone else who has ever led with service foremost in mind–have embraced the notion of leading humbly, of being open to new options and eager to learn, of caretaking instead of transforming. It’s a vision of leadership that conforms to the founders’ own, a vision of a nation safeguarded by men under a Supreme Constitution. It’s a vision that will benefit any president who genuinely embraces the oath of service.