“Good leaders must first become good servants.” –Robert Greenleaf
Sounds like a misnomer, doesn’t it? What is servant leadership?
Ken Blanchard, one of the most influential leadership experts and author of the One Minute Manager says this: “Servant leadership is 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.”
If that is the case, how do you lead yet “work for them” as Blanchard states? Wouldn’t that make a leader look weak? No. It isn’t weakness, but humility. An excellent real-life example of authentic servant leadership is by Jesus. You can find it in the Bible: John 13:1-20.
In this passage, the 12 disciples of Jesus plan to meet together with him in the “upper room” (or dining room, probably at the home of another follower of Jesus) to celebrate the Passover meal. As in the custom of the day, a servant is available to wash the feet of the guests when they arrive at someone’s home. Because the primary mode of transportation was walking the sandy, rough streets and trails from one place to another, the job of foot washing was a smelly, dirty job.
But this time, no servant was arranged for this duty. As everyone arrived, no one offered to do it for the rest of the crew. Instead, they sat down to have a meal with Jesus, unwashed. What was the room atmosphere like as everyone sat at the table with this essential washing left undone? Did they wonder what Jesus would say?
They needn’t wonder because Jesus said nothing.
Before the meal could begin, Jesus himself stood and removed his robe (today’s “rolling up your sleeves”). He procured the water basin, wrapped a towel around his waist as servants did at that time, knelt, and personally washed the feet of each disciple. Humbly. Gladly.
Imagine what the men’s reactions were as they watched their rabbi, bending to hold, wash and dry each grimy foot in the room! Were they embarrassed that Jesus was doing this dirty, unappealing job of a servant? Only Simon Peter’s objection is recorded, which spoke aloud what everyone else was surely thinking, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Although pretty apparent, Simon Peter was undoubtedly tongue-tied and a little sheepish to see what Jesus was willing to do, while Peter and the others were not.
When he was finished, Jesus, their rabbi, makes this a teaching moment. “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.” (1)
In today’s world, we can identify a leader who understands the importance and wisdom of these servant leadership principles, because it is often apparent by their actions. Jesus made this observation when he told his disciples: “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you, it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. (Matthew 20:25-28 NLT)
Those who use their positions of leadership purely for their own ends have jealousy and selfish ambition with disorder and evil of every kind. (2) They may get what they want at the time, but they will not have lasting success in the end. People learn to distrust these types of leaders.
If you are not a follower of Jesus or read the Bible, you can still be a servant leader. How? Because simply, a servant leader is not “me-focused” — doing what it takes to press themselves forward to success. Instead, a servant leader is “other-focused” — doing what it takes to encourage others on to success. You realize that it doesn’t work to be prideful, selfish, or always try to impress others. It’s best to be respectful, unpretentious, and think of others first. You don’t look out for only your own interests, but take an interest in others too. (3)
If you are a leader who follows Jesus, you understand that “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.” (James 3:17)
All these positive traits need to be expressed in your leadership. 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.” When serving followers, the leader, in turn, will be enriched anyway. Jesus assured us of this when he said: ”Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.”
Authentic leaders, servant leaders, aren’t those who expect people to only do things for them. Instead, they are humble, always willing to help, teach and prepare others to one day be leaders. There are plenty of managers who can manage and facilitate their workers to get things done. It’s another thing to be a leader who motivates and encourages their workers to succeed.
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?
To learn more servant leadership principles:
(1) IVP New Testament Commentary
(2) James 3:18
(3) Philippians 3:2-5