Business and leadership thinkers attribute the term and the concept of servant leadership to Robert K. Greenleaf. Some of the more historically informed will point out that Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher of the 7th century B.C., was espousing similar principles in his day.
There is no doubting the esteem in which leadership thinkers hold the concept of servant leadership. They recognise that it is an incredibly powerful approach to leadership and the positive effect it has on those who come under its influence. However, as an article in Forbes magazine pointed out, powerful though it is, it is not that prevalent.
Anyone who has read the Bible will realise that the concept of servant leadership predates Robert Greenleaf and Lao Tzu. We find the God – yes, the much maligned God of the Old Testament – revealing Himself as Israel’s helper, a term that was used first of all to describe the kind of companion God sought for Adam. In fact in those early chapters of Genesis we see God revealing Himself as a servant leader in the way He sets Adam and Eve up for success and progress in the Garden of Eden. In short, He uses His unlimited power to empower them.
Little wonder, therefore, that when the Son of God becomes son of man He describes Himself in terms of a servant. What is unusual, even breathtaking, is the extent to which He emphasises His servant like nature, both in words and in actions. And, in case anyone was in any doubt, just before His crucifixion, He took a towel and basin of water and performed the ultimate menial task, namely washing His disciples’ feet. He did not do this simply to impress His disciples with His humility, He did it, the Bible explains, firstly to show them the full extent of His love and secondly to provide an example of how they should relate to each other. He provides His followers with a towel instead of a title.
So why is it that servant leadership is not that prevalent? Why is it that even in the church the servant hearted spirit of Christ’s followers is sometimes not that much in evidence? How can we become effective servants of both the Lord and each other?
Firstly, servant leadership and serving in general is counterintuitive. The world system, whatever culture you look at, seldom if ever, equates influence with the kind of virtues associated with servanthood. Can you imagine any prospective prime minister or president being questioned about how they had developed patience or love or humility? It’s hard to imagine gentleness or kindness as qualities one would seek in future political leaders in any kind of political set up. Yet those qualities are exactly what we find in Jesus.
Secondly, servant leadership requires a deep level of security in who we are in Christ. John’s gospel explains in the verses before the description of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet, that Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist (John 13.3-4). Jesus did not serve in spite of the fact that He was the Son of God, but because He was the Son of God. The more we discover who we are, the more serving should become a natural expression.
Thirdly, we need conviction about the impact of servanthood. Towels just don’t seem to make the same impression as titles!
One follower of Jesus who laid hold of the towel and served with distinction was Stephen, the first martyr in the Christian church. In Acts 6 he is chosen to help deliver bread to the church’s widows. His practical service opens doors for supernatural ministry and preaching the gospel. The impact of his service extends even into the manner of his death, as the future apostle Paul stands watching as Stephen lays down his life for Jesus. Serving has the power to change people’s worlds.
Finally, serving is simply a matter of following the example of Christ. Here’s what Jesus said after He’d washed His disciples’ feet:
I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do. I’m only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his master; an employee doesn’t give orders to the employer. If you understand what I’m telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life (John 13.15-17, The Message).
No other reason is needed. Jesus says do it. Do it – and live a blessed life.