The leader as a servant sounds like an oxymoron. Aren’t leaders supposed to be the bosses, and we are to serve them? Doesn’t the Bible tell us to be obedient to our masters on earth?
Yes, and there are plenty of examples of leaders who take advantage of their position to be bossy and autocratic slave drivers, looking out for their own well being with little regard for followers. Perhaps you know some of them. You might even be one of them! There is a better way.
There is One who is the greatest of all, Jesus Christ, Who taught the crowds and His disciples about servant leadership proclaiming…
Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.
But the greatest among you shall be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
Later Jesus actually demonstrated for His disciples this different kind of leadership at their last supper together…
So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again,
He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?
You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.
If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.
I’m sure you can think of people you don’t trust, not because they are not meeting commitments, and not because they are inconsistent in things they say or do, but simply because they are not serving your best interests. Leaders who serve the followers they are leading, however, will be more effective in the long run, because their followers want to follow.
Over the course of history, even heads of states and countries were called prime ministers because they were called to serve those they led. One prime minister stands out.
“V” for Victory
During World War II, the bombings of London and other British cities, killed over 100,000 civilians. Huge fires swept across the cities adding to the death and destruction. Winston Churchill, then prime minister of England, worked tirelessly to lift the spirits of the people. During lulls in the bombing, he would go out into the wreckage to comfort them. They would cheer for him, and he would visibly weep. Then they would cheer all the louder, shouting, “He cares! He cares about us!” He would respond by saluting the crowds with his famous “V” for victory sign. What a great illustration of servant leadership in action.
Let me propose that “V” for victory also signifies leadership in service to others. While the position of a leader is top down, the function of leadership is from the bottom up. Can you see in this graphic for our series of articles that the leader is at the bottom of an upside down pyramid holding up the followers?
Support, care for and trust in others
How can we practice servant leadership so that followers will want to follow us? The research reported in The Leadership Challenge suggested to me that followers respond to three behaviors – demonstrated support, care for and trust in others. Here are just three examples…
- Listen to them and let them know you are listening to them by repeating to them what you hear them saying. It demonstrates you are listening. Also, respond to requests. It doesn’t mean you say yes to a request, but it does mean you should not ignore any request.
- Give up threatening. Ephesians 6:9 Paul admonishes, “And masters … give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven and there is no partiality with him.” It is key to note that many times leaders do not realize they are threatening. It may be a combination of a forceful personality, having lost your temper once, and/or your position of power. One way to get feedback about your leadership style is to make yourself accountable to others. This may involve engaging a trusted advisor who can see you at work.
- Trust in action. “Trust is a risk game. The leader must ante up first,” according to The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner, who also tell us that if leaders want to be seen as trustworthy, they must first give evidence of their own trust in their followers.
Trust is indeed a must when it comes to leadership, which is demonstrated in the way we meet commitments, walk in integrity and serve sincerely.
But in whom does a leader trust? Other leaders? Followers? In himself or herself?