3 questions about servant leadership

“Every leader in my organisation says they are being a servant leader, but not many people feel like they are being served.” This is what one missionary told me when we started discussing leadership development in her organisation. This was not an easy thing for her to say but it got me thinking about all my own leadership failures, about the times people may not have thought me a servant leader. Chuck De Groat puts it pretty clearly in When Narcissism Comes to the Church “The kenosis passage from Philippians 2 presents a vision Christians long to live into but which we sabotage time and again.”

Servant leadership has been growing in popularity in the secular business world since Robert K Greenleaf published his essay The Servant as Leader decades ago in 1970. In this era of YouTube and Twitter, people like Simon Sinek have taken it viral. In Servant Leadership in Action Sinek goes so far as to claim that “All good leaders practice servant leadership”. Before I became a missionary, I saw plenty of examples of servant leadership in my corporate business life. My boss cared deeply about seeing each member of his team flourish and did everything he could to help them succeed. Yet knowing what I knew about his private life and beliefs he could hardly be said to be intentionally modeling his behavior on Jesus. As I have reflected on the leaders I have met in both the business and mission worlds, read both Christian and secular leadership theory and thought about my own leadership, I realize that because true servant leadership is loving people like God loves us we will never not fail at it this side of heaven. Yet as I venture on this lifelong journey of trying to live and lead like Christ, I am asking myself three questions.

For whose sake am I leading?

In the last few years before leaving Thailand, I supervised several young short-termers. My husband and I had been young short-termers ourselves who struggled through an experience that left us saying “Anywhere but Thailand God” (which like so many missionary stories of course means that was exactly where we ended up). We desperately wanted their experience to be different. I wanted to answer Simon Sinek’s final rallying call in Leaders Eat Last to “Let us all be the leaders we wish we had”. I tried to treat them the way I wish I had been treated. I gave them lots of ideas and encouragement and then the freedom to go and out try it, to make mistakes and see what worked. It didn’t go well. In fact they resisted every step of the way. They didn’t want the chance to try and fail, they wanted more direction, even hand-holding. What was the servant leader answer in this case? I suspect it was neither treating them the way I wished I’d been treated or treating them the way they wanted to be treated. It should have been trying treating them the way God would – with love and curiosity trying to lead them into the unknown. Jesus didn’t cede to his disciples’ pleas not to leave them and go to the cross because he knew they needed something they didn’t think they wanted. I absolutely could have done more to give those young people clarity, safety and support but I don’t think I would have stopped pushing them to find their place in God’s great story. Prayerfully and humbly I want to be able to say as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”. That is leading neither for my sake nor theirs but for God.

Am I prepared to be wounded?

Andy Crouch in Strong and Weak claims “flourishing requires us to embrace both authority and vulnerability”. He defines vulnerability as being woundable and opening ourselves up to meaningful risk. I think so many people fail to see their leaders as servants because they haven’t built trust based on weakness and relational risk-taking. They haven’t seen leaders freely admit their mistakes, be open to criticism and quick to accept blame and apologise. Our broken, sinful natures make that hard. Brene Brown in Dare to Lead recognizes that you can’t get wholehearted engagement without creating spaces where we can take off our armour. There is a lot of discussion in secular literature about creating boundaries around our vulnerability, being selectively authentic. There is nothing wrong with sometimes putting our own emotions aside for the sake of a greater goal but sometimes being honest about the messy parts of life helps our leadership. The real question to ask is: am I being vulnerable in a way that helps my discipling of others, am I pointing them to Christ by being real about my struggles and failings in my own attempts at living like Christ?

Do I understand the role of weakness in authority?

Jesus exercised his power and authority by laying down his life and giving up his rights. “These two roles aren’t in tension, and he isn’t one and then the other. The way he is the conquering and ruling Messiah is by being the servant. Servanthood is greatness.” (Craig Hamilton, Wisdom in Leadership) Jesus didn’t give up his authority or power in order to become a servant, he made his authority complete by becoming weak, through death. Sometimes servant leadership fails to achieve the results and relationships you hoped it would. But true servant leadership as modeled by Christ only fails in the world’s eyes. Command and control might work in some contexts, but it definitely doesn’t work with support-raised mission workers. The power of our influence comes more from our care and willingness to take meaningful risk than our vision. 

A leader once told me the mark of a leader is when you look behind and see who is following. These days I’m not so sure. Jesus was and is rejected by many. Yes, sometimes servant leadership “fails” but not if it’s truly cruciform. Maybe we are asking the wrong question by looking behind to see who is following. Maybe we should look ahead to Jesus the shepherd and pray everyday for the courage to follow him into the unknown.

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