Over at CNN, Bob Greene has an opinion piece titled “4-star general, 5-star grace.” In it, he retells the story of how White House aide Valerie Jarret confused Four-star Army General Peter Chiarelli for a waiter. Greene said:

Graciousness can pay priceless dividends. And it doesn’t cost a thing. You may have heard the story about what happened between White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and Four-star Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli at a recent Washington dinner. As reported by the website Daily Caller, Jarrett, a longtime Chicago friend of President Obama, was seated at the dinner when a general — later identified as Chiarelli, the No. 2-ranking general in the U.S. Army hierarchy, who was also a guest at the gathering — walked behind her. Chiarelli was in full dress uniform. Jarrett, apparently only seeing Chiarelli’s striped uniform pants, thought that he was a waiter. She asked him to get her a glass of wine. She was said to be mortified as soon as she realized her mistake, and who wouldn’t be? But the instructive part of this tale is what Chiarelli did next. Rather than take offense, or try to make Jarrett feel small for her blunder, the general, in good humor, went and poured her a glass of wine. It was evident that he wanted to defuse the awkward moment, and to let Jarrett know that she should not feel embarrassed.

I suppose the story in and of itself says something about a town that makes a big deal out of the general’s actions. General Chiarelli may not have even felt as if his character was out of the ordinary. I wonder if I would be wrong in saying that these are the type of social graces that were once very common and are still common in many homes and communities. I also once heard a friend remark that “in New York City it’s about how much money you make, Los Angeles is about what you look like, and Washington D.C. is all about who you know.” You get the point.

When I was in college, sometimes I would notice the chancellor walking around campus with a bag picking up trash. I remember cynically wondering if he was doing it so everybody could see him. Maybe I just thought that because I found myself disagreeing with him a lot. And then one day I had to get up early on the weekend, and sure enough, there was the chancellor picking up trash before the sun was even up. It was the worst possible time to try and impress anybody with his actions.

I reviewed Joker One on the PowerBlog a couple of years ago. It is an excellent book and it is essentially about servant leadership and the greater love principle (John 15:13). I commented at the time, which is still true, that the book taught me more about leadership than all my seminary classes on leadership.

The general’s actions serve as a good conversation starter for leading with humility. It also serves as a nice contrast to Senator Barbara Boxer’s attitude on Capital Hill in 2009:

There is a great 18th century hymn “Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah” by William Williams. It is, of course, well known today, but the last verse is missing from most modern hymnals. I don’t really know why it is often omitted because it seems most appropriate today. Especially during the Lenten season, it is a powerful reminder of the type of leaders Christians should be. The last verse speaks to the very self-centered and vain world we inhabit:

Musing on my habitation,
Musing on my heav’nly home,
Fills my soul with holy longings:
Come, my Jesus, quickly come;
Vanity is all I see;
Lord, I long to be with Thee!
Lord, I long to be with Thee!

  • http://www.chafuen.com Alex Chafuen

    Reminds me of the story I heard of the great economist Walter Williams who had a neighbor mistake him for a lawn care worker. He asked him to do his lawn . . . Walter did. Imagine how embarrassed the neighbor was when he found out the truth . . .

    Walter Williams is another great leader

  • http://blog.acton.org Jordan

    That story of the general reminds me of this urban legend/apocryphal story. The version I heard had the guy being a country music producer who like to mow his own estate:

    There’s a story about Thurgood Marshall, the first Black member of the Supreme Court, that I hope is true.

    He was mowing the lawn at his posh residence in a Washington suburb when a car stopped in the street. The woman driving the car noted a Black man mowing a lawn and called out, “How much do you charge for mowing a lawn, my good man?”

    Marshall hesitated, and the woman said, “Well, what does the lady of the house pay you?”

    And Marshall said, “She doesn’t pay me anything, ma’am. She just lets me sleep with her every night.”

    http://www.snopes.com/racial/mistaken/gardener.asp

  • Jim

    great leaders never have to tell anyone they are lofty or great. They do what they do and that inspires others to follow.

  • http://www.acton.org Father Robert Sirico

    The general story reminds me of why I was a speaking engagement in Houston some years ago where I was to give the luncheon address. At the head table I was seated next to a friendly and informative Texas gentleman. After speaking for awhile I asked him what he did. “I am the mayor,” he replied – humbly. I was mortified, of course, but he made me feel comfortable and at ease. A true Southern gentleman.

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