Why Servant Leadership is the Only Way to Lead

“Good leaders must first become good servants.” 
— Robert Greenleaf

When you look at it, “servant-leadership” seems to be a misnomer. How can you lead but be on the serving end of the equation? Wouldn’t that make a leader look weak?

The best way to answer this question may be to see a real-life example of true servant leadership. Let’s look at John 13:1-20.

In this scripture passage, the disciples of Jesus are going to meet with him in the “upper room” to celebrate the Passover meal. As in the custom of the day, there would be a house servant available who would wash the feet of the guests as they arrive. This was a smelly, dirty job to be sure since the major mode of transportation for people at that time was walking the sandy, gravelly streets and trails from one place to another.

This time, however, there was no servant. And neither do you see any of the disciples offering to do it for the rest of the crew. Instead, they sit down to have a meal with Jesus, unwashed.

free public domain photo

It is before they begin the meal that Jesus himself stood, removed his robe, (I see this as the modern-day “rolling up your sleeves”) procured the water basin, wrapped a towel around his waist as the servants did in those days, and personally washed the feet of each disciple.

Humbly. Gladly.

What could have the men been thinking as they watched their rabbi, their leader, bending before each man to hold, wash and dry each grimy foot? Were they embarrassed that Jesus was doing this dirty, unappealing job of a servant? Scripture records only one verbal objection, that of Simon Peter, who speaks when everyone else was silent. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (Okay, it was a little obvious, but maybe Simon Peter was a little tongue-tied and sheepish to see what Jesus was willing to do, but that he and the others were not.)

After the job was complete, Jesus states: “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.”

Jesus was reiterating that “the exercise of leadership is to follow this model of servanthood.” (IVP New Testament Commentary)  He was near the end of his ministry, and one of his last lessons was to stress the importance of servant-leadership to his disciples — a lesson that would help them as they took the gospel around the world.

“Servant-leadership all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up 
and doing whatever it takes to help people win. In that situation, 
they don’t work for you, you work for them.” 
— Ken Blanchard

In today’s society, it can be easy to detect those people who understand the importance and wisdom of servant-leadership, and that is how they act. Is the person “me-focused”– doing what it takes to press themselves forward to success, or are they “other-focused” — doing what it takes to press others forward to success?

The person who has “jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.” (James 3:16 NLT) They may get what they want at the time, but in the end, they will not get lasting success. No doubt because people will distrust them and give their loyalty and service elsewhere.

James goes on to say in verse 17: “But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace-loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.”

Servant leaders follow this pure wisdom from God and express it in their leadership. They ask: “What do people need? How can I help them get it?” Leadership guru John Maxwell says,

“True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not to enrich the leader.” 

But when you do serve your followers, you will in turn be enriched anyway, since Jesus told his disciples in John 13:18, “Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.”

A real leader, one who is a servant-leader, isn’t the person to whom all things are done for, it the person who will help those who work with her and for her, teaching them and preparing them to one day be leaders. There are plenty of managers out there who can manage and facilitate their workers to get things done. It’s another thing to be a leader and help their workers to their own success.

To think about: In whatever your vocation is right now, what is one thing you can do to help an employee, co-worker or associate towards success? 

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