To have the words servant and leader in the same sentence might look oxymoronic to some people. That’s because we’ve come to see both words as contrasting, as two extremes that don’t meet – if you are a leader, then you are not a servant; and if you’re a servant, then you are not a leader.
Our society has fundamentally altered the significance of leadership to mean rulership, dictatorship, tyranny and any other thing that is far from being a guide – one that leads the way.
While each leadership pattern or style may have its peculiarity, one leadership philosophy that stands out is that of servant leadership.
An example of proper leadership can be seen in our Lord Jesus Christ. The leadership patterns he employed are effective in their simplicity as well as extraordinarily basic. And because they’re reproducible, they can be replicated in every segment of the society – home, church, academia, political and corporate world. One of such patterns is the philosophy of servant leadership.
Servant Leadership Explained
The mother of James and John had come to Jesus requesting that her two sons occupy the highest offices in the kingdom of Jesus. Such a request showed a shallow understanding of Christ’s mission on earth, as well as a wrong understanding of the path to positions of authority.
Understandably, the other ten apostles got offended on hearing her request. However, the indignation displayed by the ten apostles showed that they lacked a basic understanding of the true meaning of greatness also. So, Jesus decided to teach them one of the fundamental paths to greatness, as well as one of the basic qualities of true leadership.
“So Jesus got them together to settle things down. He said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.” Matthew 20:25-28.
And in Matthew 23:11, he went even further: “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant.”
This means that one of the sure paths to greatness is by serving others – humility; waiting on tables; meeting others needs; providing solutions to people’s problems.
It also means that leadership is intended to be an office of servanthood. Just as a waiter would attend to his clients faithfully, so should a leader attend to the led.
So, here are a few thoughts on what servant leadership is:
Servant leadership is leading the way.
A leader is a guide, who clears the path for others to walk. He eliminates the risk factors, blunts the sharp edges of the thorns so that those coming behind won’t fall sick nor get injured. A servant leader is not behind the sacrificial lamb, he is the lamb for the sacrifice. He isn’t protected by hitmen, he takes the bullets so others may live. That was exemplified by Jesus. (See Matthew 20:28)
Servant leaders walk the talk.
The woes pronounced on the Scribes and Pharisees by Jesus in Matthew 23 began with a sharp denouncement of their double life – they say what they don’t do; they make rules they don’t keep. A servant leader doesn’t churn out laws that he violates. He practices what he preaches. He must live by the same standard he has placed for others.
Servant-leadership exercises authority with understanding and grace.
Understanding human nature and its complexities enable you to handle matters properly. A servant leader doesn’t judge after the sight of his ears nor reprove after the hearing of his ears. Because you aren’t up there while your subjects are down here, you are in touch with reality – you’re sympathetic to whatever they might be going through. So, you exercise your authority over them with understanding and grace.
Servant leaders eat only after they’ve fed others.
Seeking to satisfy the needs of others even when your personal needs aren’t met yet is a great quality that distinguishes servant leaders. Administering healing to others, caring for, loving and teaching others while going through your own pains is difficult but that’s what servant leadership entails; it’s an integral part of your job description. You don’t allow your personal issues to cloud your judgment nor make you lose interest in the affairs of your subjects. So, showing empathy, love, genuine interest in the affairs of the led is what servant leaders do.
Servant leaders wash the feet of their followers.
The leader should constantly wash the feet of his followers, not necessarily because they’re dirty, but because an example needs to be shown to the Johns, James and Peters on the ingredients of successful leaders. You have aspiring leaders who observe your life and pick up virtues/vices consciously and unconsciously. So, some gestures pass messages that a thousand words may not.
No matter what sphere of leadership you’re into (community, institutional, business etc) there are ways to integrate stewardship or servant-hood into it. It could be as simple as getting a tray of coffee for everyone, giving someone a lift, genuinely asking to help a co-worker, going to their offices instead of calling them to yours etc. The important thing is that they are done genuinely.
Finally, becoming a servant leader isn’t synonymous with a lack of standards/values. It is leading through humble service and guiding by being in front. Successful leaders are those who have understood and imbibed the attitude of service.
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