What Servant-Leadership Is Not
July 23, 2008
I usually don't define something by what it isn't, but in the case of servant-leadership, I (and others) find it necessary to do just that. Let's use the Apostle Paul as our focus so that I can give some examples of the points I am making.
1. Servant-Leadership is not being polite. It isn't holding doors open for everyone, or picking up the tab at a restaurant. While a leader should be willing to set up chairs if that's what is needed at the moment, that act in and of itself does not make one a servant leader. I don't think Paul was an easy man to get along with. I think he was focused and cordial if you were on his side, but if one got crossways with him, I think that person heard from Paul.
2. Servant-Leadership is not "soft." Servant-leaders don't sit still when things go wrong. They don't sit in endless meetings and listen to everyone's opinion about this or that. I consider myself an aspiring servant-leader, yet I would release an unproductive or unhappy employee in a New York minute if that is what was best for them and/or the organization for which I worked. Paul got in Peter's face and confronted Peter's hypocrisy as reported in Galatians 2. He vehemently opposed putting John Mark back on the team in Acts 15 and that decision cost him his relationship with Barnabas, who was John Mark's cousin.
3. Servant-Leadership is not indecisive. Servant-leaders listen and then they make decisions, when possible, in a group or team setting. If there is no group setting, then they make the decision based on what is best for the organization and the people it serves. Paul opposed anyone or any doctrine that was not in the best interests of his "people," which in Christ were the Gentiles.
4. Servant leadership is not a little service and and a lot leadership (or vice versa). This is why I am careful to hyphenate this concept, for it isn't either/or. It's not that one sometimes leads and sometimes serves, trying to discern which is needed when. Paul always led when he went out, but he had no hierarchy, title, or organization. He told us in Thessalonians that he was not only like a father (" For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children" - 1 Thessalonians 2:11) but also a mother (I wonder what all those who want to be the "father" in the house of God will do with this verse?): "As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children" (1 Thessalonians 2:6-7). This summarizes the spirit of a servant-leader. They are both father and mother, strong and nurturing, decisive and compassionate, strong and merciful.
So what then is servant-leadership? Robert Greenleaf, usually credited with sparking the modern servant-leadership movement, defined it as serving others' highest priority needs. I define it as putting my experience, gifts and time at the disposal of others to help fulfill Ephesians 4:12-13: "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."
This does not mean that servant-leaders can only function in a church setting, nor does it indicate that servant-leaders can only serve and lead those who are in churches. We need servant-leaders at every level of society who use the power and wisdom of experienced and skillful leaders to build up and empower others in every walk of life.
Leaders have power and servant-leaders give as much of that power away to others to empower them to fulfill their purpose. A few years ago, I had a 20-year-old leader from an urban ministry come to me in a retreat where I was facilitating. She said that she felt that she was supposed to take her discipleship group to Africa and would I help. I immediately said, "Yes!" She left the ministry before we could go, but if she would have gone, I was at her disposal to serve her to see that her objective was met. It did not matter how old I was or how many degrees she did not have. The issue was servant-leadership. I would serve her by leading her to Africa.
I want to write next on the characteristics of a servant-leader, although we have touched on some of the traits in the first three articles. If we are going to see a reformation in the church or society, if we want to see revival take place spiritually or culturally, then we must grasp and implement the concepts connected with servant-leadership, or else we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. If we do what we have always done, then we will get what we always have.