Leaders Who Serve
Connect The Highest
My small group watched a DVD recently in which the speaker mentioned Servant Leadership several times, without explanation. The assumption was everyone understood.
During the discussion that followed one of the participants, a good friend, asked:
What is servant leadership?
Good question and I knew the answer, kind of. I was familiar with the term but had never really thought about it in detail. I knew it was generally based on the example of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet but beyond that, not much.
I did answer the question, though, and even as I answered I realized how little real thinking I had done on the subject.
In typical sound-clever-waffle-much fashion, my answer was a bit long.
My friend, the one who asked the question (and does business training by profession), gently reminded me that long-winded answers usually indicate a lack of understanding.
He was right.
Following that discussion, I made a point of investigating the topic for myself.
The Conclusion First
It is a long winded process getting to the answer so I’ll tell you up front what I believe servant leadership really is.
Servant leaders are not servants in the strictest sense of the word. In fact, I don’t much like the term “servant” in this context.
“Service” and “serve” are good terms. They define actions and attitudes but the term “servant” is very different. Traditionally “servant” defines a position and the people who hold such positions are limited by undeveloped skills and a lack of education.
That doesn’t define Jesus and it shouldn’t define leaders. It is counter-intuitive to refer to leaders as servants. I talk more about that in the next section.
So what do we mean by “Servant Leaders?” How should we define them?
Leaders who serve, encourage members of the group they lead to participate in the process of identifying THE purpose, THE goal, THE end game (the main idea) for their organization, whether it is an international corporation or just twelve disciples who work together.
Servant leaders don’t force personal ideas on the group. They build consensus by insisting everyone contribute to the idea pool and assist in analyzing those ideas.
Granted, some goals are preset, like “make money” or “make disciples,” but in that case the means of reaching the goal becomes the focus. In other words, “How do we do this?”
In the end of the discussion, everyone agrees to and understands what they are trying to do and how they plan to get it done.
And in the effort to serve the main idea, which everyone does not just the leader, the leader encourages every person to own their space in the organization, making whatever decisions necessary (within reason), to move the group toward the set goal. Leaders are also open to feedback.
Are we reaching the goal? If not, why not? How can we do it better?
Leaders don’t just listen for feedback, they require it.
Servant leaders serve people by drawing them out and giving them latitude. People who follow service-oriented leaders are made to feel secure. They aren’t afraid to think, express themselves or act.
That’s what I believe “servant leadership” is. Here’s how I got to that conclusion.
A Bit Contradictory
Once I finally focused on the issue, I immediately recognized something obvious that had never occurred to me before. In fact, I don’t recall anyone else mentioning it, either.
Combining these words into one term is counter-intuitive.
The words leader and servant are not synonymous and don’t naturally blend. Neither is generally used to describe the other.
The words are defined differently. If the terms represented job titles, the descriptions for each would have very little in common.
Servants and Leaders compliment one another only because they are opposing, like a thumb and forefinger. They don’t replace each other, they assist each other, with one providing more assistance than the other.
They represent the highest and lowest levels of the organizational spectrum. No one is above the leader. No one is lower than the servant. At least that’s how we normally see it.
Where The Term Came From
Since the dictionary meanings don’t help much, we have to ask:
What is meant when someone refers to “servant leadership?” How did these words become conjoined?
To answer the question, it helps to know where the term came from.
The phrase was first coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf when he wrote and published an essay on the topic.
I wouldn’t say the idea originated with Greenleaf. Jesus is the leadership model Christians try to emulate but I’m sure Greenleaf’s ideas were influenced by His example, at least from a distance.
But Greenleaf was the first in recent history to think long and deeply enough about the topic to write an entire book. Before Greenleaf, it wasn’t so popular. After Greenleaf, it became an important part of the discussion.
Greenleaf started with three essays:
- The Servant As Leader
- The Institution As Servant
- The Trustees As Servants
These essays were later incorporated in his well known book, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.
Larry C. Spears, co-author and editor of the book, has isolated ten characteristics of servant leaders from Greenleaf’s writing:
- Commitment to the growth of others
- Building community
A few observations:
Some of the terms are not semantic and a few overlap (listening and empathy, for example, are close cousins).
Greenleaf’s ideas were highly nuanced and a bit tedious, and there is a good reason for this. They were developed over a lifetime of observations at work, plus his early years, which I’ll mention just now.
But the tedious nature of his writing creates a problem. By the time you grasp Greenleaf’s meaning and how the terms fit together, the opportunity to lead and/or serve may have come and gone.
Difficulty in understanding the terms isn’t the only drawback. A person who isn’t by nature empathetic, as Robert certainly seemed to be, may need time and practice to get that right.
The effort required to work through and grasp Greenleaf’s ideas, coupled with the fact that many have preset ideas about leading and serving already, creates the right situation for people to put their own spin on the topic.
Robert gets left behind, Jesus is left out and the Bible is nowhere to be found. And the concept becomes more and more confused.
Google the topic and you get an assortment of definitions that vary widely.
Servant-infused leadership becomes whatever the speaker/writer wants it to be.
A Little About Greenleaf’s Background
But we don’t want to forget about Greenleaf just yet.
Since Greenleaf is the person who popularized the idea, it is fair to start with his background. If we know where he was coming from, we can then understand what he meant by servant leadership.
It is important to note first of all that He was a Quaker, aka Friends or Society of Friends. Quakers are Christian but not in the mainstream sense of the word.
In fact, they are very unlike all other Christian groups. One hallmark of Quakerism is the way they “lead” their meetings. You could say they have mastered the art of leadership by spontaneity rather than by appointment.
They have no paid pastors and their meetings are led by no one in particular. They gather and sit quietly until someone feels compelled to stand and say something. Others may speak as they wish, or not, depending on how they feel moved.
The meeting is considered over when one person turns to another and the two shake hands. Following that, everyone shakes hands and they all go home.
But the important point is not how they conduct their meetings but why they do it the way they do.
What motivated this apparent absence of leadership was the Quaker belief that all people are important. Everyone has input to share. So rather than give lip service to Equality, they epitomized it.
Of course, Human Rights and Equality issues have become popular in recent history but for Quakers it was their mantra from the very start (1600’s). It was a primary value in the beginning, and they have consistently included everyone, encouraged everyone and fought for the rights of every disenfranchised group ever since.
To further clarify the perspective, when Quakerism started, Calvinism taught that any person who wasn’t overtly Christian was completely depraved. That is one reason the American Indians and Slaves were treated so poorly. In the Calvinistic way of thinking they were savages and bereft of all possible good.
But Quakers believed something quite different:
Every person is loved and guided by God. Broadly speaking, we affirm that “there is that of God in everyone.”
In other words, the Divine light shines in and through every person. It is unusual to find people that believe that now. For a whole group to believe and practice this in the 1600’s was radical.
And to prove they did more than give lip service to the idea, Quakers not only allowed spontaneous messages in their meetings they also:
- Allowed women to speak in their assemblies.
- Allowed women to travel alone.
- Allowed women to publish their writings.
- Allowed women to participate in decision making.
- Were the first non-political group to petition congress to end slavery.
- Were the first to protest publicly for women’s rights.
The reason this is important is because Robert Greenleaf was born into Quakerism. His earliest impressions were flavoured by the Quaker value of equal consideration for all.
He was taught that every person can make a contribution regardless their station in life.
The point is this. Greenleaf’s ideas were informed as much by his upbringing as they were by his occupation.
Two Foundational Underpinnings
As I mentioned, Greenleaf’s writing is a bit tedious. It lacked simplicity and most of the spin off from those writings lacks simplicity too. The more people write about it, the more confusing it becomes.
So, in this post I’ve isolated just a couple of principles that reflect Greenleaf’s background and writing. I wouldn’t say these principles are easy to apply but clearing the air is a first step. The issues are:
- Idea Sharing
- Power Sharing
Both of which are evident in the ten characteristics taken from Greenleaf’s book.
These two principles differentiate leaders who are servants from those who aren’t.
Ideas are like opinions. Everyone has one and they are not all equal. Some are good and some are not.
A servant leader doesn’t just encourage idea sharing, they draw people out. The open format of the Quaker assemblies allowed people to share ideas but the leader who really serves the group best is the one who insists people share their ideas; rewards them and incentivizes the sharing of ideas.
It’s the first step in the process of building consensus.
The process doesn’t stop once the ideas are shared. Servant leaders also encourage rigorous and open discussion to evaluate ideas.
Conventional leaders think up ideas and impose them on everyone. Servant leaders include everyone is the process.
At the end of the process, one idea emerges, which everyone understands and believes in, Instead of this person’s or that person’s idea, it becomes THE GROUPS IDEA.
A bad idea that everyone believes in is better than a good idea no one understands.
Question: When we read through Scripture will we find statements that specifically tell us to take this approach?
The short answer is, no. The Bible doesn’t specifically mention idea sharing.
But there are two things about Scripture that help us believe this is the approach we should take.
- One: The clarity of Scripture.
I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18
There is nothing unclear about this statement. The local Church is God’s institution of choice.
And that brings us to:
- Two: The brevity of Scripture
There are many questions left unanswered about the church: what day to meet, what time to meet, how often to meet, where to meet, what should be done in the meeting, the structure of the church, the leadership of the church, and more.
One way to answer these questions is to trust God’s ability to work through the group as a whole. Share ideas and discuss them openly.
Power sharing avoids two extremes: Hoarding power AND Abdicating power, both of which can be disastrous.
But there is an important point to be made about power sharing.
Having the power to do something means we have the authority to do it. And having the authority to do something means we also have the responsibility to do. And if we are responsible, we can be held accountable.
Power implies accountability.
Shared power is spread broadly. Everyone becomes accountable.
If something needs to be done, whoever happens to be closest to the point of action is responsible to do it and accountable if they don’t.
In our home, dish washing was one area in which we shared power. If you dirtied a dish, you not only had the power to put it in the dishwasher, you had the responsibility to put it there too. If you didn’t?!
Power sharing is not only “You-CAN-do-something,” it is also, if it needs doing, and you’re close to hand, you’re the man.
Question: Is this taught in the Bible?
Yes! Jesus demonstrated this when He washed the disciples feet.
Feet needed to be washed. No one told Jesus to do it. No one else was doing it. The disciples even balked at Him doing it, but Jesus just did it.
Maybe that’s where Nike got their slogan.
Later Paul said,
By love, serve one another. Galatians 5:13
Servant leadership is not the leader being the servant. It is the leader encouraging everyone to contribute, participate and take ownership of their space within THE MAIN IDEA.
Don’t be a leader. Be a leader who serves.