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Fit for a Servant: Fate/Zero and Deviant Leadership} ?> King Arthur is female. Gilgamesh is blonde. Alexander the Great is seven feet tall.
At a glance, Fate/Zero seems determined to spite history buffs, but deviancy is the name of the game in this alternate version of Japan, where magi summon ancient heroes in a bloody war to obtain the wish-granting Holy Grail.
Tired of swinging swords at each other (or chucking them, in Gilgamesh’s case), the three monarchs agree to talk things out and determine the victor by status rather than strength.
Arturia (that’s fem-Arthur—keep up!) quickly becomes the odd-king-out in the debate, and not just because the testosterone-fueled tyrants outnumber her altruism two-to-one. She’s ashamed to have ever pulled the sword from the stone and become ruler of Camelot. Throughout Fate/Zero, Arturia constantly returns to her inner mindscape—alone, atop a hill of slain knights; her back and head bowed beneath regrets as numerous as the corpses under her feet.
If Alexander represents the human power fantasy (dream large, live larger), and Gilgamesh the epitome of a utopian dictatorship that would make even Machiavelli blush, then Arturia is a crash course on the dark side of servant leadership.
Conceptualized as a counter movement to traditional “worker management,” servant leadership inverts the hierarchical pyramid, putting the leader in a supporting and mentoring role. In many ways, it’s a leadership style as deviant as gender-bending Britain’s famous king. History expects its leaders to reign from above, like Gilgamesh, or from up front (to “laugh louder and rage harder” in Alexander’s own words). Perhaps it’s the many misconceptions of servant leadership that keep potential adopters from fully embracing it and its benefits.
Arturia saw her rule as an act of service—to restore Britain through her ideals and fulfill the hopes of its people. But service alone does not a servant leader make. In Arturia’s case, it actually led to twisted pride.
Arturia seems separated from her trusted knights by an ivory tower. Like an overly-protective parent, she builds an emotional wall around her people, shielding them from the burden she carries as king. Thinking herself merciful, she continually saves her people without ever teaching them to save themselves. When civil war breaks out in the kingdom, the people become exactly what their king has prepared them to be: victims.
When servant leadership goes wrong, the leader can become a martyr, clueless as to what her followers really want… and equally blind to the dangers of pandering to her followers’ every demand.
Contrary to misconception, servant leadership isn’t “fishing for someone” or even “teaching someone to fish,” but instead “teaching someone to teach someone else how to fish.” Rather than enable, it aims to empower in an endless cycle. That means the leader must have enough confidence that her power won’t be stretched too thin when shared with others.
Reigning during a time when women were considered more suitable as mothers than monarchs, Arturia’s seclusion and hesitation are understandable, at least toward the main populace; but her disconnection from her own Round Table inexcusably leads to desertion. Even when her most loyal knight, Lancelot, steals Guinevere away, Arturia refuses to descend a single step from her ivory tower to punish him. On the surface, it seems an act of mercy, but the painlessness with which Arturia excuses her knight’s actions implies that correction and restoration is too messy an affair to consider. And, of course, one more stripe on her back is nothing more than her martyr’s reward.
When Alexander challenges Arturia’s desire to erase her mark on history, she’s forced to confront a difficult truth: her reign was not one of servitude, but of self-service to her own ideals. In refusing her knights and people the ability to shape those ideals, she lost them completely.
It’s often most effective (at least, at first glance), to do things on our own, without interference from others. For introverts like Arturia, that might be because less interaction is simply less draining; but perhaps, more honestly, many leaders don’t trust people to lead themselves. They expect something will go wrong if they hand over the slightest bit of power, and when they take everything on themselves and turn down offers of help, that’s precisely the message they send. Leaders like these rob people of the chance to be part of their vision. Often, sharing ownership of that vision is the key to transcending it.
Servant leadership takes time and effort. It doesn’t rely on charismatic promises or an arsenal of pointed projectiles to move others to action. It is about analysis and strategy—learning about your followers, equipping them with the tools they need, and putting them on the best possible square of the chess board for their unique skill sets to flourish and their individuality to grow. The ultimate goal is to guide pawns across the board to knighthood, and teach the newly-knighted to do the same.
After her first failed attempt to attain the Holy Grail, Arturia is summoned once again during the next war—this time by a young magi named Shirou. Incompetent and reckless, Shirou throws caution to the wind nearly as often as he throws his body in harm’s way for Arturia’s sake. And while Arturia first tries to persuade Shirou to stand safely on the sidelines and let her fight for him, he—unlike the people of Camelot—refuses to be a helpless spectator. Hesitantly, Arturia agrees to train Shirou to fight and protect himself and, in the end, it is Shirou—who she helps shape into a leader—who saves Arturia from her crippling regrets.
Despite all her kingly missteps, Arturia’s knights ultimately admired her for her courage to pledge herself to the immortal ideals of honour and chivalry. Even nihilistic Gilgamesh, who mocks Arturia’s altruistic martyrdom, is ensnared by the pure light unleashed from her upheld blade. Excalibur embodies the eternal ideals which Arturia has willingly returned time-and-again to the world to pursue. Perhaps if she had shone that light more brightly upon her people, rather than keeping the blade sheathed for fear she’d blind them with its radiance, Britain could have truly taken hold of her ideals and saved itself.
The call of a higher purpose is what cements servant leadership, and those entrusted with the power to pursue that calling recognize themselves as ambassadors of immortal ideals, dreams, and faith. In the realm of influence, servant leadership is an all-powerful leveler. All it requires is enough humility to serve the bigger picture… and just a little bit of deviancy in the face of a power-hungry world.