Have you ever aspired to being a great leader? Have you ever considered that God is the ultimate servant leader? Shocking thought, isn’t it? But, God, the Almighty creator and sustainer of the entire universe and our very lives, pours his sunshine on the just and the unjust, and (as the ancient poets wrote) “in him we live and move and have our being.” For all he does for us, what does he demand from us? Nothing but our love and trust! “The way up is down.” “Influence comes from serving.” “Be the change you want to see in others.” “The best leadership is an ark: A leader needs to define reality at the beginning, say thank you at the end, and be a quiet servant-leader in the middle.” Have you ever heard of Robert K. Greenleaf? I had not, until last week’s Sunday school class, where we were introduced to Greenleaf’s work on learning to be a servant leader. Greenleaf was inspired by reading Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East, a novel about band of men on a quest who were sustained by their servant…and lost without him. And, doubtless Hermann Hesse—who was a Nobel-prize-winning son of missionaries—found his inspiration in the life of Christ, who has been the world’s quintessential servant leader. Jesus Christ never demanded respect from anyone, yet he’s had more people revere and love him than anyone who’s ever lived, and he has more followers than any other person in the world…even today, over 2000 years after his death. Why? Because he’s God incarnate? Well, yes, perhaps that’s the reason. But, also—he was an amazing servant leader. He has won the hearts of his followers by loving us and providing for us…and he calls us to do the same for others. Jesus lived and taught us the way of love…of sacrificing ourselves so that others may live. Are we living out his calling?
Larry Spears took the work of Greenleaf and distilled it into 10 characteristics that need to be consistently practiced in order to be an effective servant leader. I’ve listed them, because I think they help concretize some of the behaviors of a servant leader. In our Sunday school class, we were challenged to think of an example from the Bible where each of these characteristics is demonstrated, so I’ve noted mine in parentheses.
1. Listening: a deep commitment to hearing and understanding what others are saying (Jesus listened to Blind Bartimaeus when others wanted to ignore him: Mark 10:46-52)
2. Empathy: understanding, accepting, and recognizing the unique worth of others (Jesus demonstrated this interacting with the woman caught in adultery: John 8:1-11)
3. Healing: the potential for facilitating wholeness in oneself and others (Healing was one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry. Luke 9:11, ” And the people, when they knew it, followed him: and he received them, and spake unto them of the kingdom of God, and healed them that had need of healing.”)
4. Awareness: awareness of self, others, and the world generally (Jesus had perfect discernment concerning how to work with people. Although he loved them, at one point we learn: John 2:24-24, “But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, and needed not that nay should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.”)
5. Persuasion: influencing others by what you do and say rather than by your authority (God himself does not demand our allegiance but rather persuades us to believe in him by faith: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” Hebrews 11:13.)
6. Conceptualization: able to nurture an ability to “dream great dreams”; set a compelling vision (Jesus teaching in Matthew 13:45-46, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”)
7. Foresight: understand the lessons from the past and today’s reality (Jesus not going to the feast when the disciples thought he should:”Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast: for my time is not yet full come.” John 7:8
8. Stewardship: everyone owns the resources and the outcomes in trust (Jesus taught us not to worry about materialistic gain: Matthew 6:33, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” As God’s children, we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ: Romans 8:17.)
9. Commitment to the growth of people: people have an intrinsic value beyond the contributions they make as workers (Jesus instructing Peter to feed God’s flock, John 21: 17, “And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.”
10. Building Community: servant leaders seek to build a sense of belonging and family into organizations that they lead (Jesus reassuring his followers that someday we will all be “at home” with God, our Father: John 14:1-3, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”)
Beyond these specific principles that we can practice, I think the greatest virtue of a servant leader is love…allowing God’s love to transform us and flow from us to others. “By love, serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). “But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”