Servant leader was a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader”, an essay that he first published in 1970. While I appreciate his challenge to conventional leadership theory, what is the matter with just “servant?” Isn’t that the way of Jesus?
Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
I have a shelf full of books on leadership. Some are interesting and unique, but the majority read like coaches’ manuals full of advice on how to motivate unremarkable teams. Quite a few of the ones on my shelf were penned by pastors. There may be an unwritten rule somewhere that says every pastor whose attendance tops 1,000 needs to write a leadership book – quickly. Into that book he will pour all the wisdom amassed in his brief encounter with growth. For the typical leader who shepherds a church, who has to deal with the realities of positional leadership, there is obvious value to sharing among the fraternity.
But for the very rare person who has the drive and vision to be an enigmatic leader, such books are unnecessary. He will be out in front and people will follow him writing his books for him.
Let me start by saying that I have high respect for those who take on the mantle of positional leadership, especially in challenging environments. I have worn it myself. There is a place for leaders of integrity who lead from the authority of position and learn the craft of leading. When such men and women lead it can be inspiring. They not only have the influence of power, but also the power of influence. In the hands of good men and women, very good things can happen.
Frankly, most people don’t experience positional leadership of that kind. Most people look up from the street at windows of power far, far over their heads. For them, it is not a book on leadership they need, but a book on followership. The shelf I put aside for such books is empty.
Following is way under-appreciated in our American society. But if you are not a good follower, you will never be a good leader. Most of us must learn to lead from below. We have to consider the plans, hopes, vision and expectations of someone who is in positional leadership over us and find ways to bring every possible part of that vision to fruition; in our assigned responsibilities and in our areas of influence. It is a middle place – between leader and follower – where vision is prescribed and leadership is pragmatic and earthy. Visionaries depend on such people to translate vision into action.
Two men in the Bible intrigue me as examples of leadership from below. In Luke 7, a Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. But he doesn’t require Jesus to physically go to his home. He recognizes something in Jesus that is at work in Him. He says, to paraphrase, “I know power. I am a recipient of authority, so whatever I say goes – not because of me, but because of the one who I represent. You are like that. So say the word and my servant will be healed.” His understanding of how power worked in a servant of another gave him clarity with regards to the power at work in Jesus.
Then there was the unworthy servant (Luke 17:5-10). The disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith. So He tells them a most unusual story. It is of a servant who came in from the field and still had work to do in service to his master. The servant doesn’t ask to be relieved of his duty because he attended to other duties all day. He simply did what was expected of him before taking his rest. How do you increase faith? Do the obedient thing, and watch how God works through your faithful serving.
Leadership from below is effective because it is based upon an understanding of how power and influence work in the Kingdom of God. It doesn’t require any kind of greatness, but rather obedience and faith in the one who sends us into the field to work.
What is the ultimate test of having the attitude of a servant? I mean, how can you tell if you really are a servant? Simple. People will treat you like one. May I know my servanthood by the way I am treated.