No two words better describe the function and role of a leader than servant leader. It’s an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly.” In some ways, putting the words together doesn’t make sense. How can a servant be a leader? How can a leader be a servant?
True leadership is found in serving others.
Robert Greenleaf in the early 70s coined the term, “servant leadership.” However, the concept of servant leadership can be found in Jesus’ life and teaching. Jesus taught, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave” (Matt. 20:26-27). Max De Pree, long-time CEO of Herman Miller, echoed Jesus’ teaching when he wrote in his book Leadership Is an Art, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”
Jesus’s words reveal that servant leaders lead with others in mind. In fact, the servant leader’s motivation is love for others. New Testament love always puts the needs of others ahead of their own. The leader displays this love through time spent in knowing and responding to the needs of others. Sacrifices of time, money, and prestige are made because of their love for the people in their care. This love distinguishes genuine leaders. Author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek said, “Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” A part of this care occurs through serving.
The servant leader must humble themselves in spite of their positional role. Some leaders often think their position gives them a vaulted authority and higher right. Often this action produces negative consequences because the leader has assumed responsibility that is not given. They have usurped their boundaries because of a title. Instead, the position a true servant leader is not first but last, not demanding authority but humbling themselves before others. The servant leader knows titles, degrees, and positions are meaningless without an attitude of grace and actions that assist others. The servant leader doesn’t wear a title to show who’s in charge, doesn’t think he’s better than everyone else. He truly cares for others, setting an example of service. It’s not about the leader; it’s about others.
Jesus was fully aware of His leadership position. In fact, the disciples experienced Him as their Master, Rabbi, and Lord—a strong and powerful leader—before they experienced Him as a servant. In spite of Jesus’ rank and status, He voluntarily became a servant to His followers. For example, Jesus did not come to earth to be a foot washer, but He was ready to perform this menial task for His followers. He saw a need and met that need. He humbled himself. He stepped away from His positional role to assume a servant role.
Jesus’ example provides a model for all leaders to follow. Here are some ways to practice servant leadership.
· Listen to people. People are hurting and in need. We need to hear what they are saying so we can respond to their hurts. Healing begins the moment people are heard. One of the important traits of a servant leader is listening not only to the words but to the heart.
· Encourage them. A hallmark of servant leadership is encouragement. Instead of trying to catch someone doing something wrong, look for what people are doing right and tell them. Appreciate them. Most people long to be appreciated. And, words of encouragement, coming from a deacon, can produce powerful and productive good will.
· Treat everyone with respect. No matter age, status, popularity, or seniority respond to all with the same level of admiration and decorum. Jesus made time for the less fortunate. He allowed for interruptions. People mattered to Him. He treated all with dignity.
· Mentor them in their development. Use every opportunity to help people grow. Teach others to lead. Show others how to serve. Provide opportunities for personal growth. Leaders are often put into situations that can be used powerfully in teaching, training, and mentoring people to maturity.
· Cultivate a culture of trust. Trust often is missing in businesses, especially if there has been bad leadership in the past. Some people have been burned or misused and as a consequence don’t trust leadership. Establishing a trusting atmosphere will enable the business to move forward. Part of this comes as leaders are faithful to the task and responsibilities assigned to them.
· Invest in people. Leaders invest in employees so the business will grow. Following through on commitments and promises are investments worth making.
Today’s leaders would be wise to follow in Jesus’ steps. The servant leader, keeps in mind that we are servants first and leaders second. And, when we get that right, then we truly are servant leaders.