Misunderstanding servant leadership


Adam Grant’s new book, Give and Take, makes the case that servant leaders are more highly regarded by their employees, feel better about themselves, and accomplish more.

For six months, a couple of businessmen tried to emulate this behavior. One said, “This technique doesn’t help. … Its demands are excruciating. … My boss doesn’t appreciate my effort. … I run out of hours.” The second businessman had read a Harvard Business School article that asked, “Is the term ‘servant leadership’ an oxymoron?” and began doubting its supposed advantages.

These two men are not alone. For many committed Christians, servant leadership has been taught, seldom caught, and often fraught with misunderstanding. Many well-meaning Christian instructors cite Matthew 20:25-27 and John 13 (where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet) and say, “Find a need, serve it, and you will be a servant leader.”

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Sounds easy, so how can such a simple concept be misunderstood?

First, servant leadership is not a technique that can be adopted from the outside in. Instead it begins in and flows from the heart. Immature believers run into trouble with the concept because they try to execute a formula, rather than renew their minds biblically, resulting in a God-changed heart and leading to effective servant leadership. The impact of supernatural love cannot be packaged in three easy lessons.

Jesus is our best example. He came to serve, spending His earthly life, His death, and His resurrected eternity serving. His service took on many forms, the least of which was washing feet. That was merely an outward picture of a heart willing to do anything, if needed.

Second, there is confusion about who Jesus served. Many say He came to serve us (people, believers, the elect), and He seems to say that to His disciples. And He did die for our salvation. But applying that perspective can lead to trouble. Leaders end up spending their time trying to meet the needs and wants of their followers, but they discover their followers’ needs are insatiable. These leaders end up like our two businessmen: frustrated, disillusioned, confused, unappreciated, and beaten down.

But this perspective is an insult to Jesus, a man-centered interpretation of our Savior’s life, and it misses His heart entirely. It feels good, it preaches well, and people like it, but it is dead wrong. Jesus had a much greater purpose: He came to serve His Father. He did serve humanity, but in a way that far surpassed satisfying our perceived physical and felt needs. Jesus’ service to us was an outgrowth of His service to the Father and a heart set on doing the Father’s will. That is what we need and do not have, and what all servant leaders need.

That is why genuine servant leadership is so hard and rare—it stems from a heart set on serving the Father with every fiber of who we are. We do not have this and only God can give it. Without the impact of Christ, servant leadership becomes just another business technique, devoid of its necessary foundation.

Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” Paraphrased to explain servant leadership we could say, “Without a heart for serving God, servant leadership on our own is nothing.”

Bill Newton
Bill Newton

Bill is a pastor based in Asheville, N.C. He also serves as a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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