“…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…” – Jesus (Mark 10:43)
Wikipedia will tell you that Robert K. Greenleaf is the founder of the servant leadership philosophy, probably because he wrote the pamphlet “The Servant as Leader” in 1970 which caused an awakening in the business world. In that pamphlet, Greenleaf attributes his epiphany to a story by the German poet Hermann Hesse, but I don’t think either Wikipedia or Greenleaf have looked back far enough. In 2003, Ken Blanchard, the American business management guru wrote The Servant Leader, with Phil Hodges. Blanchard, who is very open about his Christian affiliation begins by quoting Jesus, which is where I believe we must start.
In Jesus’ world most of life was top-down management. The government was top down from Caesar, religion was top down from the high priest, family was top down from the patriarch, the oldest male member of the family, finance was built on patronage, politics by primogeniture.
One of Jesus’ goals during his walk with us on earth was to put in motion the upending of that system because it was a system which more times than not lead to tyranny by those at the top toward those at the bottom.
The notion of servant leadership actually pre-dates Jesus, but Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophesy. Isaiah, very contrary to most notions of the Messiah, speaks for God when he states in chapter 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; … (Isaiah 42 1:-3) and he goes on for several more verses.
Luke describes how Jesus claimed that role when he read in the synagogue from Isaiah 61, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me he has sent me to bring good news poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”… (Luke 14: 18, quoting Isaiah 61:1)
I found a list of Ten Principles of Servant Leadership : Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualization, Foresight, Stewardship, Commitment to the Growth of People, and Building Community. (Chris Huff published the list on his website, but they are derived from Greenleaf’s writings). I think we can find all of these characteristics in Jesus and many in the apostles, but I would like to look at some specific examples in scripture and see how they might apply to us.
I would name the first as “willingness to respond.” Mary responded to the angel who called her to be the mother of Jesus. Jesus responded and was willing to take on human flesh. The apostles responded when Jesus said follow me. Scripture notes a few that responded reluctantly like Moses who complained he did not speak well and Jeremiah who complained he was young, but both eventually took up the task to which they were called. Scripture also records a few who walked away like the rich young man we read about last week. God offers us many opportunities to be servant leaders, but first we must be willing to commit to that life.
Along the same lines as “willingness to respond” is “humility”. When we are called to some perform a task, we will not respond positively if we think that task is beneath us. I have made it a practice not to ask anyone to do something I am unwilling to do. We may not have the skills, and we may need to ask for help, but we shouldn’t just push it off on someone else. You never know the impact it may have on someone else. Brother Lawrence was a poor monk who had the worst job in the monastery. His job was to wash the dishes, but he did it with such love and devotion to Christ that people have talked about it for over a thousand years. Jesus washed his disciples feet on his last night with them, a job considered only for the lowest of servants, because he wanted them to go a do likewise.
Jesus walked among the people and met them where they were. He often delegated tasks, but he did it as a teaching tool. Show them how, supervise them doing it, send them out to do it themselves such as when he sent the 70 out to heal and cast out demons in the neighboring villages.
When Jesus met the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not approach them with the authority due his role as a male in his society or as a defender of the law as a religious leader. He gently persuaded them that he had something better to offer them than what they had experienced in the past and with the woman caught in adultery, he gently persuaded the others that they were not in a position to accuse others.
One can be a servant without being a leader or a leader without being a servant. Christians are called to servant leadership. We are leaders because we claim to know where we are going, to have a goal in mind. In the list above with might call this conceptualization and foresight. We might not have all the details worked out, but we have a vision, a trajectory, a path and we believe enough in that vision to ask others to follow us. We are servants because we are also realistic about sacrifices may be required along the way. We willingly accept that there will be times we have to put the needs of others ahead of our own to accomplish our ultimate goal.
When Jesus said “Follow me” a great number of people did just that. He never pretended the way would be easy. In fact, he knew it would lead to a cross for himself, and sacrificial living for those who followed him, but he instilled such a trust in people that they followed him anyway and have been doing so for two thousand years.
Moving back to the list, I don’t think Jesus demonstrated what today passes as good listening practices, in that he did not restate what others said or ask clarifying questions very often. Instead he listened even deeper. He listened to the very hearts and souls of individuals and ascertained not only their words, but their motives. He then responded, sometimes before they even spoke. Most of us are not that skilled, but true listening will help make us aware of other’s feelings, strengths, and weaknesses. It will allow us to show proper empathy.
Even in the best of circumstances, we all misjudge situations, speak without all the facts, react without taking time to think about the consequences. Being willing to ask for forgiveness and being willing to reconcile with those who have injured us shows the heart of a servant leader. When Peter betrayed Jesus and the other disciples abandoned him, Jesus could easily have written them off as not worth his trouble, but Jesus came to them after his resurrection and offered them his “peace.” He initiated a conversation with Peter, saying, “Peter, do you love me” giving Peter the opportunity to be healed emotionally and drawn back into community with Jesus and the others.
We are each called to be servant leaders. We can choose to be servants, always doing the will of someone else. We can choose to be tyrannical leaders, using our power and authority to force others to do what we desire, or we can choose to be servant leaders, leading others by example out of kindness and patience. I would encourage you to become familiar with Jesus’ leadership style as you develop your own.