Servant Leader or Self-Focused?

June 19, 2020

If you live long enough and are very fortunate there will be a few, very select people that come into your life that demonstrate the rarest of gifts called servant leadership. I’ve been in the workforce and in various forms of volunteer and ministry work for 40+ years and I can count on one hand those that I would say were true leaders – those that were motivated to serve and inspire those in their care.  In his most recent book called “The Motive”, Patrick Lencioni explores the reasons why people become leaders. In the book he declares that “fewer people in the world should become leaders” and states unequivocally that you “should not be a leader if you’re not doing it for the right reasons”. He goes on in the book to make the very provocative assertion that the only true type of leadership is servant leadership.

The concept of servant leadership is not really new…in fact its been around for centuries. But, most attribute the term to Robert K. Greenleaf who first coined the phrase “servant leadership” in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as a Leader”.  I did a quick Google search on the topic and literally dozens of books, articles, and how-to lists popped up.  I also conducted an informal poll of some of my employees asking them what came to mind when they hear the term – servant leadership. All of them knew the term and responded with feedback like: “humility”, “dedication to team success”; “dying to self”; “avoiding being a credit hound”; “focus on others”; “Empowering and supportive”; and “Care and empathy”. So, it’s clear that while many people know about servant leadership and could probably talk about it at length, I know from my own experience there is often a great chasm between knowing about something and actually doing something.  Servant leadership as a concept has become so common place that it has kind of lost its true impact. I was challenged recently in a similar vein from a message by Andy Stanley where he stated that just saying we’re “Christian” is a long way from actually following Jesus and practicing his teaching. That was strong medicine, but true.

There are many amazing examples of leaders in our history that lived out the principles of servant leadership – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa just to name a few. But perhaps the single greatest example is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. He was a world changer in a multitude of eternal and temporal ways, but his concept of leadership completely revolutionized the way we think about leading others. In the gospel of Mark, Ch 10 he challenged his inner circle of leaders – his executive board if you will – on their wrong-minded thinking about who would be the greatest leader among them.

“So, Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

That was radical then, and its radical now. According to Jesus, true leaders serve rather than be served. They give, rather than take. They ‘suffer’ for the sake of those they love and serve. Jesus practiced what he preached…most famously demonstrated by washing his disciple’s dirty feet hours before he knowingly went to the cross to die an unjust death for you and me. I think its important to clarify that servant leadership does not mean avoiding confrontation, fear of making unpopular decisions, being inconsistent, or lacking conviction. On the contrary, it means caring enough to not do those things.

Conversely, and way more commonplace, the opposite of servant leadership is self-focused or power-driven leadership. Power, by definition, means possession of control, authority, or influence over others. To be clear, there is nothing wrong at all with ambition, drive, or the desire to achieve and lead…the question is what is the motivation? Lencioni says that there are two reasons people become leaders and they can be summarized as either reward or responsibility:

1. Responsibility: Motivated out of genuine concern to do whatever you need to do to serve the people that follow you

2. Reward: Driven by the desire for attention, status, power, control, etc.

It’s a good litmus test to ask ourselves – do I lead because I feel a responsibility/burden for my team, people, or organization, or do I lead because I want to be “the boss”? Here are four signs from a Forbes Magazine article that you may fall into the self-focused leader camp…take a minute and truly reflect on how those that work for you might answer.

·      You frequently say I, me, and my rather than we, us, you. You are the hero of all the victories while others are to blame for the failures.

·      You don’t very often hear bad news. Power-hungry leaders believe that bad news will damage their reputation; so, it gets suppressed or denied. Your employees get conditioned to only tell you what you want to hear.

·      You are frustrated, even angry, when not in charge. Self-focused leaders are unable to share the limelight, take-turns, or otherwise shut-up for brief periods. These are indicators that our power drive is controlling us

·      You distrust your co-workers and employees. You focus so intensely on gaining your own power that you see the world as a zero-sum game and become suspicious of those around you.

Sadly, because we are all selfish by nature, servant leadership is a rare thing that must be intentionally pursued and actively nurtured. So, while easy to explain, it’s not so easy to practice.  Like a lot of things in God’s economy, it may not make sense on the surface, but it always pays huge dividends for those willing to risk personal sacrifice for the greater good of others. Today, more than ever, we need more leadership that serves and less leadership that takes.

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