Undercover servanthood

As I finished watching the first episode of the new show Undercover Boss, I shed a tear and made a mental note to catch the next episode. Why did I enjoy the show so much?

For those of you who didn’t see the show or wonder what I am talking about – here is the premise. The CEO of a major company goes “undercover” in their own company and does the daily work of one of their lower level workers. In the process they learn much about the work, themselves and the functioning of the company. In the first episode we follow Larry O’Donnell who does five different jobs in Waste Management in five days, with varying success levels.

Hmmm…..why does this premise resonate? We know of someone else in history who abandoned the power and prestige available to him and became “one of us, like us in every way.” In the process of cleaning toilets, picking through recyclables, picking up litter, our CEO comes to the realization that the average worker in his company works incredibly hard, and that some workers persist with a positive attitude even though life has dealt them cancer, diabetes, and too many relatives to support on their income. Our CEO’s response is encouraging – he is outraged at injustice, awed by positive attitudes and persistence, and seeks to use his authority to make right the wrong values and practices that he uncovers.

Just as someone else in history went about his people “curing their illness, restoring sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, etc.” our CEO seeks to bring justice and healing to the situations he uncovers. As we consider both our historical example and our CEO, we recognize that all the people can’t be healed, all the problems can’t be fixed, but a vision of shalom and flourishing is presented nonetheless.  Our CEO sees what each worker brings to their situation, and seeks at the end of the show to more closely match the passion and gifts of the people he worked with to better jobs – for example, our infectiously upbeat toilet cleaner is recommended for a job that more closely matches his ability to bring joy to others, and our litter manager is made a company mentor for those dealing with their jobs and difficult personal health situations.

Unlike Jesus, our CEO wasn’t crucified at the end of the episode, but in a company meeting where our enlightened CEO explained his epiphany and outlined positive changes for workers, it seemed to me that his fellow leaders weren’t fully sold on the concept – they gave a sort of “this too shall pass” look. The viewer wonders if Larry the CEO will be successful at implementing this new servant leadership style and make it stick.

This show not only made for good viewing – who couldn’t relate to their bosses actually having to do their work and live in their shoes 24/7 – the human desire to be fully understood, but it presents a concrete vision for leaders of how it might be to lead in a servant manner, emulating the “foolish” values of Christ that we try to teach our kids in Christian schools and helping others to flourish.


Filed under community, leadership, mission development

2 responses to “Undercover servanthood

  1. Joy Meyer


    I too watched this show and thought of leadership. As Director of Teacher Education at Trinity Christian College, I tell my students that I am not only training them to be teachers, but to be the future leaders in their schools.

    Sunday’s episode struck me in particular. The owner of 7-11 did not go looking for trouble or problems; he wanted to learn.

    I think that too often leaders only look for problems or for areas where they can suggest improvement. However, walking in another’s shoes to learn is powerful. I think Jesus modeled this kind of servant l leadership.

    Thanks for connecting the dots! It was a compelling message for all of us!

  2. john kitur

    The article is both captivating and thought-provoking. Captivating because it is well presented and undeniably true. Thought-provoking because it keeps one awake mentally – how would the WORLD be like if all CEOs were like this CEO? Most of our societies are led by leaders who feast on the ‘led’ instead of feeding them. Africa has suffered the worst brunt of such kind of leadership. This calls for holistic, transformative, and Christ-centered educational system which enable learners to grow to be servant leaders. Again, thanks for this eye-opening article. John Kitur, Nairobi, Kenya.

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