There is an ancient argument about what defines leadership. The central question buried within the argument is “are you truly leading people if they are compelled by your positional authority over them or do your truly lead when people want to do what you wish?” The difference between those two points is whether people accomplish tasks out of obligation to the leader or do they act because of the influence of the leader. Most of us would want the people we lead in organizations or project teams to do great work because they want to do it, not because they have to do it. They key ingredient helping people want to do great work goes back to the leader’s personal leadership style. This is where servant leadership comes in.
Is it best for people accomplish tasks out of obligation to the leader or do they act because of the influence of the leader?
While the practices are ancient the modern Western theory of servant leadership comes from Robert Greenleaf who in, in his 1970 book “The Servant as Leader,” defined it as: “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.” As you can read, Greenleaf says initial difference is in the motivation. Does one want to lead because they want to serve others or does one want to lead out of a less altruistic motivation? As Christians our desires to lead should always stem for how it might serve others. Though Greenleaf reignited the modern discussion on servant leadership Jesus himself also advocated it over 2000 years ago when he said “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45). It doesn’t get any clearer than this. Jesus declared that he came to serve so, as followers, we must also look through that lens of leadership. Where does one begin with this? Outside of the step of studying the life of Jesus and seeking to emulate his love for people and how he equipped and led them, here are three guiding thoughts:
It’s not about you. It’s incredibly easy to be drawn to leadership for several reasons. Control, power, authority, attention, and other motivations are certainly draws for many. The servant leader, however, must constantly remind themselves that it’s not about ego, it’s about others. When a leader begins to think how the work can benefit them or move their career/reputation/platform forward then they are in immediate danger of losing perspective of others. Servant leadership cuts both ways; it is not only about the people one serves, it’s also about the One you serve. The Christian leader must always seek to first honor God and others and trust that if God wishes to elevate them then He will. This is how Scripture shows us Jesus led his life and represents the truest annunciation of the servant leadership model.
Servant leadership cuts both ways; it is not only about the people one serves, it’s also about the One you serve.
You are not above any tasks. Outside of your interpersonal interactions there is no quicker way to demonstrate servant leadership then remembering (and practicing) the fact you are above no tasks. While where your time goes has to be weighed there is a balance that should be present in helping out when others need it. Do you see some staff moving boxes? Cleaning up after a staff celebration? Arriving early to get things ready for a big event? Many people are quick to think they are above such things once they become a leader, but the irony is they ensconce themselves as the leader when they take a few minutes to jump in the more menial things and help. A leader often has no idea what this means to staff and it is a great demonstration of how Christ led others.
The Christian leader must always seek to first honor God and others and trust that if God wishes to elevate them then He will.
How is the gospel represented? Across all theories of leadership practice there is one characteristic that continually shows up as a “make or break” aspect of whether a leader will gain influence or not: it’s if people see that the leaders’ behaviors are aligned with what they say. For example, a leader can talk about how the company values employees above all else but if they personally treat people terribly and have no authenticity regarding it then they will grow no influence with their followers. As Christians we have a higher responsibility with it because we represent the gospel always. How will people believe that the words of Jesus have any real meaning when a leader says they are a follower of Jesus but acts without integrity or compassion? A true servant leader will always be cognizant of how Christ is represented through their actions.
Servant leadership isn’t exclusive to the Christian faith. People of many faiths or no faith can practice the larger principles of it well and genuinely represent the philosophy. As followers of Christ, however, we really have no other options if we want to lead. As stated before we are to model Christ as best we can in everything we do and, as a leader, there is no doubt he practiced leadership from a servant mentality. As we seek to do that we not only honor God and the opportunities He gives to us but we also have the chance to best represent the Kingdom to those who may not be Christians and be a significant light in their lives.