The words of Jesus haunted me as a new pastor: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35 NIV). Well, sure Jesus. That’s a great idea. But what does that mean? How can a servant lead and how does a leader serve? It seemed to me that servant leadership bounded dangerously close to people pleasing, which was clearly not the goal of leadership (Galatians 1:10). Certainly, there is a struggle to serve others but not be controlled by others, and Jesus clearly acknowledged that he was in the Father pleasing business, not people pleasing (John 5:19).
Problem solved, right? Well, not really. My point is that servant leadership, wrongly understood, is as much a burden and unbiblical performance trap as people pleasing. Too many Christians misunderstand the character and goals of servant leadership. It is too often understood as a congregation’s validation of keeping their pastor in people pleasing bondage, not true leadership. Conversely, wrongly defined servant leadership is too often used by pastors and other leaders as an excuse to pursue position, power, and privilege at the cost of their congregation. But Jesus makes it quite clear that those who seek leadership for the sake of power, authority, and positional benefits will, in the end, lose everything. So, let’s look at real servant leadership.
True Servant Leadership
In recent years there has been a renewed emphasis on, and interest in, servant leadership. Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 essay on the “Servant as Leader” provided a foundation upon which others have developed the now popular theory. Today, servant leadership is being studied and applied in multiple contexts of the culture. Although it shares many commonalities with spiritual leadership, servant leadership is distinct. Neither is it synonymous with biblical leadership. Understanding servant leadership is best done through its “test.”
The Test of Servant Leadership
The best test of true servant leadership is this: are the people I am serving becoming servants themselves? In Greenleaf’s words:
Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
In this test the deeply transformational benefits of servant leadership are apparent. Aren’t these the goals of gospel ministry? Are not Christians called to accomplish these? Jesus’ call to be servant of all is encompassed in these words. The traits, values and goals of servant leadership can be discerned from this test, as well.
Traits of Servant Leadership
Servant leaders are those who are servants first, leaders second. There is a difference between those who lead first and serve secondarily, because in the latter serving can be a method to attain greater power, authority, or other personal benefits. Servant leaders embrace power and authority, but only for the benefit of those they serve. The conscious choice to lead others for the benefit of others distinguishes servant first versus leader first. Several other leadership theories – authentic leadership, transformational leadership, spiritual leadership, and adaptive leadership, for example – address the benefit of followers, but always secondarily to the benefit of organization or leader. Servant leaders seek the benefit of those they serve first and foremost. Organizational benefits and personal benefits are secondary to the good of those led. This kind of leadership requires unique character traits and values: Authenticity, Humility, Compassion, Accountability, Courage, Altruism, Integrity, and Listening are the most important. Notice that the character trait and the value can be expressed with the same word; authentic leaders value authenticity; humble leaders value humility, etc.
Servant Leadership benefits Communities
Servant leaders focus primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. Servant leaders share power, putting the needs of others first and helping people develop and perform as highly as possible. The benefits of servant leadership extend far beyond the leader’s immediate circle to the groups and communities which they serve. Based on Jesus’ call to be “servants of all,” Christian leaders would benefit from pursuing servant leadership.
The Legacy of Servant Leadership
Certainly, real-time benefits abound through servant leadership, but consider the long-term legacy of servant leaders. Transformed individuals and communities; growing healthy people who are wiser and freer than before; and most importantly, people who are likely to become servant leaders themselves. Imagine the impact of servant leadership on families, neighborhoods, churches, and cities. It all starts with one servant who is convinced that Jesus was serious when he called us to servanthood. Servant leadership will impact the world with far-reaching ripples of love and grace, which, I think, was Jesus point all along.
Reference: Greenleaf, Robert K.. Servant Leadership [25th Anniversary Edition]: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (p. 27). Paulist Press.
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