‘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)
The subject of Servant Leadership might be easy to write or talk about, but it is challenging to live as a servant leader. The question really is: ‘You who write or talk about servant leadership, are you a servant leader?’ The term ‘leadership’ in the title seems to imply ‘power and authority’ but it is best understood as ‘servanthood’ rather than ‘servant leadership’.
Leadership is defined as ‘influence’ and a positive influence is needed in every workplace. Leighton Ford says:‘Leadership is a topic on many agendas today, whether in politics, business, or the Church.’ As such, many corporations are investing in leadership development and training in order to have the right leaders in place.
What is servant leadership?
The term ‘Servant Leadership’ was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970s.1 But even before that, two thousand years ago, the Lord Jesus came as a servant who washed his disciples’ feet (John 13) and introduced a new concept and definition of leadership to the world which is ‘to serve and not to be served’. Wikipedia defines Servant Leadership as ‘a philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve’. Greenleaf describes servant leadership as ‘being a servant first, a natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first’.
For centuries, many leadership models have been developed, practised and observed. Apart from negative types like dictatorial leadership, there are good things in most of them but perhaps the element of being a ‘servant’ is what is missing.
Hindrance to servant leadership
The greatest obstacle to being a servant leader is the fallen human nature that craves for titles and position. ‘A dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest’ (Luke 22:24). This is a phenomenon seen throughout all generations. The Lord had to model the type of servant he wants to see in his kingdom. ‘Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the 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 your slave.”’ (Matthew 20:25-27)
Here the secret to greatness is in being a servant.
In the political arena, the world has witnessed both good leaders who served their people well and dictatorial leaders who one article says ‘all governed their nations and left certain footprints of violence that are difficult to forget by the people they ruled’.2 The article says about one of the dictators that ‘he was so much of a terror that news of his sudden death was received with joy in virtually all parts of the country’. This is comparable to King Jehoram who because of his evil, the Bible equally says, ‘He passed away, to no-one’s regret’. (2 Chronicles 21:20) What legacy do leaders want to leave behind?
Character and hallmark of a servant leader
What is the character that indicates one is a servant leader? A servant leader:
- Seeks to glorify his master
- Sacrificially seeks the highest joy of those he serves
- Will forgo his rights rather than obscure the gospel
- Is not preoccupied with personal visibility and recognition (John 3:30)
- Anticipates and graciously accepts the time for his decrease.
The five characteristics and hallmark of servant leaders are:
- Valuing people– servant leaders value people for who they are
- Humility – putting other people first
- Listening– receptive and non-judgmental listening
- Trust – servant leaders trust others
- Caring – servant leaders have people and purpose in their hearts.
How is servant leadership developed?
Let me underscore that there is no single school or academic institution in the world one can join to become a servant leader. Servant leadership is a life-long school at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ. The following five tips can help develop servanthood.
1. Learning from the example Christ.
This is the most important starting place. To be constantly at the feet of the Master and learning from him. ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’ (John 13:15)
2. Learning from leaders who are servant leaders.
Mentors who are servant leaders are a blessing; we can learn from and imitate their example. ‘Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitatetheir faith.’ (Hebrews 13:7)
3. Self-training and continuous learning.
Growth in any area in life depends on personal decision, continuous training and learning. ‘Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.’ (1 Timothy 4:15,16)
4. Learning from situations in life.
One brother shared how one time he behaved like the Priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan’s Story (Luke 10) and learned an unforgettable lesson. He was driving in a rainy day and saw a woman and her kids in the rain but pretended as if he did not see them. On the way, his conscience convicted him but when he returned to pick them, he found them gone. A Good Samaritan probably picked them!
5. Reading books on leadership.
It might be debatable if reading books on leadership can really help one become a servant leader. But it is undeniable that we can learn from books as they contain stories, testimonies and experiences of others. The first book I would recommend is the Bible itself that contains stories like that of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10).
‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Lord, help us to learn from your servant leadership.
Alex Bolek is ICMDA Africa Coordinator and Regional Secretary for East Africa.
1. Servant Leadership: The Leadership Theory of Robert K. Greenleaf p.3
2. (REC FOCUS Vol. 4, No. 3 p 71 – 72, September 2004)