It seems that everyone today believes in servant leadership: churches, businesses, MBA programs—the list could go on.
The phrase is used in pulpits and splashed across leadership pamphlets. If you do a quick Google search of “servant leadership,” you’ll get scores of hits.
Despite all of this talk, servant leadership is not a terribly popular practice. Don’t believe me? Try this thought experiment: close your eyes and think of two or three people whom you would consider to be famous “leaders.” Next step: consider if you’d give the label of “servant leader” to any of these famous people.
Here’s another experiment: try to think of one famous person by name whom you would describe as a servant leader. Now add two or three more names to that list. I bet your list is getting harder to make.
The simple point of that exercise is that while we like to talk about “servant leadership” we don’t tend to lift up and celebrate people who are servant leaders. I believe that’s because, when we get down to it, the human heart doesn’t really like the idea of servant leadership at all.
A Picture of the “Strong Man” Leader
We prefer the model of the Strong Man leader. These are leaders with a commanding presence and scars of hard-won, “take no prisoners” battles. These leaders have everything the world wants: charisma, authority, and unshakeable conviction.
Jesus rejected the picture of the Strong Man. This is not to say that Jesus didn’t have the traits of the Strong Man. Scripture says He taught “as one who had authority” (Matt. 7:29). Jesus had powerful convictions that He held even to His death. And the massive crowds that followed Him show that He had plenty of charisma.
Despite having charisma, authority, and conviction, Jesus didn’t emphasize them. Instead, He emphasized humility and service.
When I’ve Failed to Model Christ-Like Leadership
As executive director of an international mission agency, I am presented with opportunities daily to embrace the Strong Man style of leadership instead of Jesus’s way.
I notice this especially when I am stressed. My idolatries of things like control, image, and safety rear their ugly heads when times get tense.
I remember a season when, as a mission, we were struggling to meet year-end budgetary needs. In all my years of service as a non-profit leader, I had never faced this potential for budget shortfall. I was struggling.
Rather than praying, trusting God, and surrendering as I went about my job, I just put my head down and worked harder. I felt that it was up to me. I was so hyper-focused that I was not open to the work of the Spirit in me and in those around me. I was draining the life out of myself and everyone else.
Of course, budgetary matters were my responsibility, but they were not my sole responsibility. I also was responsible to lead the people in our organization into faith and repentance. And I had an invitation from the Lord to be at peace in all circumstances.
As the end of the budget year neared, I did a heart check with the other Serge executive leaders. I was tired and run down. “I feel like I am getting depressed about this whole thing,” I told the team. They kind of nodded. Then I asked them, “Why didn’t you tell me that I was getting this dark?”
Another leader within Serge looked at me and said, “Bob, I tried, and there was nothing I could say to you to reach you.”
So I repented to my fellow leaders, my wife, and the board. I realized that feeding this idolatry of a perfect budget record had eclipsed a higher call to love and relate to people well.
At that moment, I was choosing the path of the Strong Man rather than the way of Jesus.
Job Description: “Chief Repenter”
When I was offered the position of executive director of Serge, I also got a job description. The first line of the description was “chief repenter.”
Seriously, that’s what the job description said: “chief repenter.”
In my heart, I wasn’t excited about being the “chief repenter.” I wanted to keep my own worries and fears hidden neatly behind charisma, authority, and conviction. I didn’t want to go to Jesus in front of my staff. I wanted to go to graphs, charts, and mission statements.
When I considered leading from a position of weakness or recognizing my own limitations, it scared me. Yet, I believed in servant leadership. I know I am not alone in this. It’s easier to talk and teach about weakness and limitations than to actually acknowledge your own weaknesses and limitations as you serve.
I accepted the job with a mixture of fear and hope. I hoped Jesus’s teaching about service would work. I was afraid it wouldn’t.
Leading Passionate People
As an organization, Serge is not full of choirboys and girls. We have a lot of persuasive and passionate personalities. Each personality has strong opinions about how best to do our mission work. And each feels pressure to support fielded-missionaries who are far from home and spread thin.
In other words, at Serge, the personalities are big and the stakes are high. A servant leader might get bulldozed.
Recently, we had a conflict among our leadership team. The conflict was still festering when we gathered for our weekly meeting.
It was my job to lead the meeting with repentance. I was tempted to spread out our organizational vision statement or to “go positive” and remind everyone about all the good stuff happening at Serge.
But going positive would just shift our attention. Jesus invites us to shift our hearts.
Instead of simply glossing over the conflict by “going positive,” I asked the rest of the team to come around me and pray. I asked Jesus to soften my heart and to renew me. After we prayed, we got to work.
When friction happens, I am expected to be the first to fly to Jesus, to ask for His forgiveness, to ask forgiveness from my co-workers. I am expected to model the sort of brokenness that will move us toward a renewed faith.
I believe this is what Jesus means by servant leadership.
Let Us Sit at Your Right and Left Hands
My favorite Scripture on leadership is found in Mark 10. James and John say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” This request cracks me up; it’s so refreshingly bold! “Hey, Jesus, do what we want.”
And what do James and John want? They want Jesus to give them ultimate glory. “Let one of us sit at your right,” they say, “and the other at your left in your glory.”
When the other disciples hear about this, they “became indignant.” It’s classic human behavior. When others threaten to rise above us, we react in fear and anger. The disciples are so very human!
Jesus now faces complete chaos in the ranks. He addresses it directly. He tells the disciples that His Kingdom is different than earthly structures of authority. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.”
In the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, leaders serve. And Jesus Himself is the pattern for this servant-leadership: “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 10:45).
Growing a Culture of Servant-Leadership
When leaders emulate the servant leadership of Jesus, a service-centered culture grows organically beyond the executive suite. Individuals within the organization are freed to act out of their identity as children of God. They are freed to ask for forgiveness and to find renewal with their co-workers.
Jesus’ Kingdom is ruled by the Servant King. It’s a strange Kingdom, one we are not very familiar with.
Yet, as we grow in trusting our Servant King, we can also grow to feel more at home in embracing His ways and creating a culture that reflects the ways of His rule.