My Grandfather's Watch

by Sam Melden

I wear my grandfather’s watch.

It’s an Accutron from Bulova with a simple gold face. The underside has his name, Don Roepke, engraved along with dates that mark 25 years of service at the factory where he worked. My mother gave it to me just after he passed away in September 2013.

At first I couldn’t figure out how to make the days of the week line up with the date. The clear, quartz cover was very scratched and even had a small crack in it. I got that fixed. I also replaced the golden, stretchy metal band with one made of brown leather. It’s not worth hundreds of dollars, but it’s a nice watch and it means a lot to me.

But you know, even with all the tweaks and changes I’ve made, there is still this sense that I am wearing Grandpa’s watch. I didn’t get a new watch. It was someone else’s and now I simply look after it. And, if I can take care of it, keep it clean and working, I might be able to pass it on one day, too. I have been thinking recently; my grandpa’s watch reminds me of the mindset of really great leaders.

“Leader” is unfortunately a confusing word in our culture. Most of us are well aware of self-centered, incompetent and even corrupt people who have grafted the title of leader to their persona without first earning the required respect, trust and credibility. We are tempted to associate “leader” with other words like success, prestige, money, fame, etc., losing the true meaning of the word. There are other words though. Other words that describe other leaders. One of my favorite authors and leaders, Parker J. Palmer, defines leadership this way: “A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light upon some part of the world, and upon the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell.”

The reason my grandfather’s watch on my wrist reminds me of great leadership is because I believe the best leaders are stewards, not owners. Trust has been given, influence granted, and the leader is faced with the question of how to handle this gift. Does she consider this status as something to be used for her own benefit, or does she understand the “here today, gone tomorrow” component of leadership? Is the goal to get his name in lights, or create a light-filled reality for whoever will take his seat next? As leaders, do we hold our influence with tight fists focused on scarcity? Or do we accept the open-handed invitation of abundance?

As I said earlier, we are all too familiar with negative leadership examples. However, there are great examples of leadership as well, and we can especially spot them when we look for those who are living as stewards, those who build something that stretches much further than themselves.

It’s like the CEO who relocates his company headquarters Downtown to help accomplish much more than simply running a profitable business.

Or the pope, in his first address, saying to the world: “Pray for me.”

Or the school superintendent who walks the halls engaging each seventh-grader he sees as if they were a board member or a voter in levy season.

Or the neighbors who care for the house they are renting because they respect the neighborhood and the landlord.

Owners use, spend and consume their way forward. Stewards preserve, share and collaborate their way into the future. Our entire conversation regarding conservation and environmental responsibility comes down to understanding stewardship. When we understand the idea of stewardship we support our schools long after our own kids have graduated.

Stewardship is tantamount to good leadership. And at The Center for Servant Leadership, we believe understanding yourself as a steward, not an owner, of the influence, power and status you currently hold is a key step in becoming a servant leader. This is an aspect of our work: teaching leaders how to uncover stewardship in their lives.

Stewardship is inspiring. When I do finally hand off grandpa’s watch to the next person, they will understand that it was given to me and now I give it to them. It is not theirs to own. They are simply looking after it for a time.