Question of the day:
Who was one of the most effective leaders you have ever encountered?
Go ahead—think about him/her.
Now name some of his/her characteristics.
Okay, now examine those characteristics.
How many of them are related to strength, certainty, might, power, and authority?
And how many characteristics are related to humility and servanthood?
There are million books about leadership. Each one tries to make its case as to how leaders ought to be, what’s most effective, and why certain leaders are successful. I’ve ready my share of those books. I’m certainly interested in, no, fascinated by leadership. Why? Because leaders move people and things in this world—for good or for bad. For example, if an organization, be it a company or a nonprofit has poor leadership, they mostly fail in what they are trying to do, it’s a toxic environment, and they usually don’t survive. Likewise, if an organization has effective leaders within it, things thrive, the environment is positive, and people enjoy being part of it.
In college and in graduate school, I studied about leadership. I learned about the so-called greatest leaders of all time around the world who moved people and things [and even whole countries] to success, peace, safety, and community. I also learned about the infamous leaders throughout history who brought about war, poverty, destruction, and pain. So yes, leadership has always mattered, and it still does.
I’ve always found it quite curious, as I read leadership books and observe leadership in the world, that a large number of people still equate leadership with strength, muscle, and authority. It is still a quite popular belief that leaders have so-called masculine qualities and thus, people trust the leader, follow him [typically gender-specific and male], and will do as he says because…
He’s an effective leader.
I’ve never really bought that perspective, because far too often I’ve seen such “strong” leaders throw their weight around, intimidate, and manipulate. I’ve also seen people cower when certain leaders entered a room—silencing their voices out of fear of offending him or her. Sounds too dramatic, but it’s real. Those who follow such leaders often do so without limits. They are willing to follow said leader to any place, and they are willing to do anything, because they believe that the leader is right and will lead them to success.
When I first started working in the church as a pastor, I’ll never forget some of the comments that adults made in my first couple of years. They would say things like:
You’re just not cut out to be a leader. You’re too nice. You hang around kids and youth and listen to them too much. You’re not strong enough. You need to tell us what to do. Leaders lead, they don’t follow. They should be sure and narrowly focused on the goal.
I thought it would change as I gained more experience in my vocation, but it didn’t. Every place I’ve worked, there have always been plenty of people who have repeated those same things, but now they mostly say them because they want me to tell them what to do, or they want me to change something they don’t like, or they want to get rid of someone they dislike, or they want to be in charge of something that is currently under shared leadership.
This is not to say that leaders shouldn’t make decisions or suggestions or envision a goal and help people set out to accomplish it.
But we’ve foolishly accepted the status quo ideas of leadership that have unfortunately lived on throughout history. Perhaps this is why I found yet another book on leadership to actually be refreshing.
Dare to Serve: How To Drive Superior Results While Serving Others, written by Cheryl Bachelder, details how embodying certain servant leader characteristics has helped her to achieve dramatic results in her vocation and in her life. When Bachelder was named CEO of the fast food chain Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, things were bad. Store sales were negative. The company and its franchisees were practically coming to blows. Today, however, Popeye’s market share has grown from 14% to 21%. Margins have increased from 17% to 21%. And the franchisees are so delighted with the turnaround they’re taking an active role in remodeling the restaurants. According to Bacheldor, the difference-maker is servant leadership. In her book she shows how she and other like-minded CEOs have applied a concept often derided as weak and sappy to deliver superior business results and supercharge employee retention and customer loyalty. If you love leading, Bachelder insists, you must love serving.
If you love leading, you love serving.
I LIKE IT!
Some notable quotes from the book:
Leaders are courageous enough to take people to a daring destination, and humble enough to selflessly serve others on the journey.
Leaders have the courage to set big goals and the humility to put the needs of their followers above their own.
For sure, I would consider Jesus of Nazareth to be this type of servant leader. And if you read the Gospel stories about him and his followers, you also get the sense that his own disciples viewed leadership as more of an authoritative position and not so much about serving others. It’s for that reason that James and John approach their teacher and ask him to grant them a lofty position. They have no idea what they’re asking for. Jesus clarifies by reminding them that following the way is not at all about obtaining lofty positions for yourself. It is instead about serving others. If James and John wish to follow Jesus, are they willing to drink from the same cup and be baptized in the same way as Jesus?
The cup is a reference to what is to come in the story—Jesus’ symbolic gesture with a cup of wine in Jerusalem, while dining with his followers. The cup is suffering, but not for the sake of suffering. The cup represents suffering with people in the world, the empathy of that act that can encourage and heal.
The baptism reference is of course to the way Jesus was baptized by John—immersed in water just as so many others were, in the river Jordan. If you recall, John did not want to baptize Jesus because he felt that he was unworthy to do so. The fact that Jesus insisted upon it shows again Jesus’ emphasis on servanthood and the rejection of authoritative, lofty status.
James and John are surprisingly confident that they are able to do what Jesus describes. But sensing that they are still more worried about status, Jesus reminds them that not even he has the ability to grant them a seat at his right or left.
This whole conversation angers the others disciples. Were they mad because James and John were bogarting their rabbi? Or were they also trying to figure out how to get the same lofty status? It’s not clear in the story, but what is clear is Jesus’ idea of what leadership looks like. He mentions the typical, status quo type of leaders who lord over others and are tyrants. And then he contrasts those hierarchical leaders with the servant leaders.
For Jesus, a leader doesn’t come to be served, but to serve.
If there is any authority or greatness in leadership, it comes from serving others. Therefore, any dominant or oppressive leadership denies everything that Jesus taught and lived.
This is counter-culture, to be sure. But I think it is a life-giving mentality, if we choose to listen and then apply it in life. Many of us may feel like we’re not leaders because we’re too introverted or shy, or because we don’t like to take charge, or because we prefer collaboration to authority. But you can be leaders, and more than that, you can make a positive impact by being a servant leader. You can shun the spotlight and instead shine light on others.
You can listen carefully, and cooperate. You can help make decisions that serve the greater whole rather than a select few. You can encourage and build up.
So in this life, what kind of leader will you choose to be?
Will you dare to serve others? Will you dare to go to risky places?
Friends, in your home life, at school, at work, at church—wherever you are—be courageous to walk with others to daring destinations, and be humble enough to selflessly serve others along that journey.