Fade in. A group of four West Virginia teenagers in the late 1950s stumble upon the property of their town’s coal plant — the town’s primary source of income — after an accident down in the mines. Homer Hickam, the son of mine superintendent John Hickam, looks on admirably as he learns that his father saved another man’s life. “That’s my dad,” he says, smilingly to himself. Almost on cue, his father berates the man whose life he just saved, calls him a “stupid son of a bitch,” and fires him. Homer, seemingly expecting this behavior, repeats “that’s my dad” without the smile.
This opening scene of October Sky was shown to my classmates and me for three years running in science classes following its release. And it’s one of my favorites. It sets up the character of John Hickam very well, and the tension he will have with his overly idealistic son.
What may be surprising to many is the type of servant leadership that John Hickam demonstrates is similar to the original personifier of a servant leader — Jesus of Nazareth.
Christianity, the world’s largest religion at over 2.4 billion followers, has impacted and shaped many of our world’s cultures and sense of morality. Add the 1.8 billion Muslims who see Jesus of Nazareth as a precursor to Mohammed, and a total numbering over 50% of the world’s population sees Jesus as a significant historical and religious figure. But why?
Some of Jesus’s leadership qualities are well known in culture. For instance, the group of disciples he built around him — the apostles — lent itself to a broader strategy that Jesus was trying to employ. The team included the first four that he called — all fishermen — a zealot and a tax collector, among others. By building a diverse team, Jesus made his values clear — his ministry was to serve everyone.
Speaking of the team, Jesus brought contrasting individuals like Matthew, the tax collector, and Simon, the zealot, together, and built a relationship between two individuals who, in the eyes of the rest of the world would typically not be associated with the word “together.”
In addition to the team, Jesus also demonstrated his authority through the overcoming of temptations and driving out demons. Furthermore, he was unafraid to tackle crises head-on as exemplified when being told that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was bedridden with a high fever.
While others at the time may have been afraid to approach the sick woman, or perhaps were tempted to write her off for dead, Jesus leaned into the crisis.
Finally, Jesus’s leadership was evident in the way he empowered others. Take the healing of the leper in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, & Luke. In the story, a leper approaches Jesus and demonstrates his faith in him, declaring that if Jesus were willing, he could heal him. In response, Jesus willingly did so.
There is one part of Jesus’ leadership portfolio that is glossed over, and it comes from one of the New Testament’s better-known stories. Matthew’s Gospel recounts the story like this:
After [Jesus] had dismissed [the disciples], he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat [carrying the disciples] was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
Shortly before dawn, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got out of the boat, walked on water, and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
Did you catch it?
Everybody who reads the story above understands the faith elements drawn from it; but, when it comes to the leadership element, they miss the boat. Notice what happened when Peter began to sink into the water and cry out for help.
Jesus rescued Peter first, then scolded him.
That is a fundamental lesson for leaders of organizations — secular and non-secular — today. Scolding, micromanaging, punishing, and other punitive methods only get so far if you do not save the employee first. Jesus started with the rescue, then corrected.
If you happened to catch the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, you were probably disturbed by the scene in the control room during the plant meltdown. As it becomes evident that the nuclear power plant is unstable, the leader on duty — assistant chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov — berates, insults and places stress on his young staff immediately, rather than trying to help with the situation. While it may not have ultimately saved the day, Dyatlov could have used his expertise to limit the effects of the meltdown. Instead, he exacerbated it by scolding first.
Cut back to the opening scene of October Sky, and you notice more of that leadership style that Jesus demonstrated with Peter. John Hickam rescued his employee from the mine first before scolding him. He knew that saving that man’s life was the most important thing to do at the moment. The scolding did not happen until the man was safe.
It’s the same reason his son, towards the end of the movie, has this exchange with his stubborn father.