Servant Leader

At LiveAsIf.org I wrote a column on Jesus as the servant washing Peter’s feet in an act of servantship as well as cleansing and forgiveness. What of the servant as leader?

In the 1990s Robert K. Greenleaf “discovered” the truth that “a leader is best experienced first as a servant” (Spears, 2004, p. 9). Jesus exhibited this axiom better than any other leader before or since He rose from the dead. While Spears does not bring out this biblical truth, he does point out ten of Greenleaf’s ideas about the characteristics of a good servant-leader, but he says nothing about the scriptural basis for these ten attributes. To explore each one, we’ll study half this week and the rest next week.

I point out here the biblical foundations for the attributes Greenleaf “discovered”.

1. Listening: A good leader is a good communicator. This means active listening. I wrote about the Art of Listening several years ago. There are two verses that stand out starkly: Luke 2:46 Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. This does not necessarily mean Jesus was asking questions to learn. Jews taught by asking questions. Teaching and listening, asking questions to get the mind cogs whirling was the way they taught. The fact that all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and His answers means He had an uncanny grasp of Scripture even at 12 years old. Proverbs 19:27 Cease listening to instruction, my son, And you will stray from the words of knowledge.

2. Empathy: This attribute is not sympathy which implies pity. Understanding a person’s situation and identifying with it in a compassionate way is illustrated in James when he points out it really does no good when a Christian sees a person hungry and cold and says, “Be warm and be full!” without doing something to better that situation. From a leadership standpoint, Jesus was talking to a rich, young ruler (the story told in Mark 10:17-22). The young man asked what he could do to be saved. Jesus mentioned the six commands dealing on a horizontal level—human to human—and the man said he had kept all these commands. Jesus looked at him and loved him. This is the height of empathy and compassion: Despite the arrogance of the man and his assertion he had never broken even one of those commands Jesus loved him anyway. Jesus loved us while we were yet sinners. He put aside all the riches of Heaven to become lower than the angels so we might know Him, understand Him, and trust Him.

3. Healing: The ability to heal is crucial to a servant-leader. God gave us a body that miraculously heals itself given time and proper treatment. The lesson is that humans suffer tumultuous hurts both from self-infliction by deliberate sin, and from other-infliction from those who brutally use us for their own purposes mostly because they hate Jesus therefore they strike out at those in His image. The empathy attribute shines a light on emotional hurts, and the healing attribute in a servant-leader exerts to help make whole that which is broken. There are so many examples of Jesus healing, but one stands out that illustrates both empathy and healing. Luke 7:11-17 tells of when Jesus and His disciples went to the city of Nain. A funeral was happening and Jesus saw the plight of a lonely widow whose only son had died. He stopped and commanded, “Young man, I say to you arise!” The dead man sat up and Jesus gave him to his mother. Greenleaf writes: "There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share."

4. Awareness: Greenleaf is focused here on general awareness and even self-awareness. The attribute lends very well to knowing the true situation of each person involved. He notes, “Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.” For instance when Jesus is overlooking Jerusalem, He breaks into weeping declaring, “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I wanted to gather you under my wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks. But, you would not allow me to; and you would have none of Me.” Awareness doesn’t mean that a problem will be solved, rather that the first step to solving a problem will be completed, and that is to recognize there is a problem.

5. Persuasion: Relying upon positional authority to make someone do their job or to give something to a task is not good leadership. It is bullying. The art of persuasion has been the topic of teaching since the first wheel was sold. The servant-leader seeks to convince others into an avenue of action rather than coerce into action. It is the very reason why Jesus said, “Come to Me ye who are weary and heavy laden. I will give you rest.” There is no coercion with Jesus. Agrippa told Paul, “Almost you persuade me to become a Christian.” How awful to come right to the brink of decision, and then like King Agrippa prefer this world over the treasures of Heaven; or like the young ruler go away disheartened because there is too much in this world that has you locked in its grip, like riches or power or foolish desires.

Proverbs 4:26 Study the track of your feet, then all your ways will be established.

Continued tomorrow.

Spears, L. C. (2004). Practicing servant-leadership. Leader to Leader, 34, 7-11.
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