Servant leaders or leading servants?

I’ve had some interesting pushback on Saturday’s post where I wrote about contours of a leadership journey. A friend in Switzerland, who teaches at Emmaus Bible Institute, acknowledges the relevance of the themes I mentioned in the post, but his pushback is against the prominence given to the concept of ‘leadership’. He suggests that the gospel is more about servanthood than it is about leadership, and in his experience he has seen too many ‘leaders’ who turn out to be ‘steamrollers who crush other people under their ambitions.’

A few months ago I linked to a post in which Andrew Wilson asked whether the church’s emphasis on leadership comes from the Bible. He’d been reading a book by David Starling who writes that,

The Bible certainly contains a host of concrete instances of individuals, tasks, offices, and images that you might want to connect in some way with the category of leaders and leadership: mothers, fathers, shepherds, sages, prophets, judges, priests, kings, messiahs, apostles, pastors, elders, overseers … the instances are everywhere. But the abstraction, the umbrella term “leadership”, hardly rates a mention.

It’s’ also worth noting the concept of ‘servant leadership’ in wider leadership literature – not least in the work of Robert Greenleaf who writes that ‘the servant-leader is servant first’ and stands in sharp contrast to the person who is leader first. Between these two extremes, says Greenleaf, there are ‘shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature’.

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

It’s impossible for anyone with a degree of familiarity with the teaching of Jesus to miss the connection with what he told his disciples about the nature of Kingdom leadership. The one who wants to be great must learn to serve and the one who wants to be first must be the slave of all. And these words came from the One who washed his disciples’ feet. His example (Philippians 2) is that he refused to hold onto his rightful status, but humbled himself.

I don’t think we should ditch the concept of ‘leadership’ – or its study – in Christian contexts. Organisations suffer when they are not well led and, as Starling says, there are plenty of biblical examples (not to mention the gift of leading – Romans 12). Let’s continue to learn from Moses and Nehemiah.

But let’s look for genuine servants. Perhaps we can take Greenleaf’s description a step further. Should we be looking for (and becoming) ‘leading servants’?

What do you think?

  • With all our conferences and books, have we been overplaying ‘leadership’ at the expense of servanthood?
  • If we changed our emphasis, might we avoid some of the damage caused by strong, but insensitive ‘steamroller’ leaders?
  • How can strong leaders cultivate servanthood and develop Christ-like character?
  • Should you be a servant-leader or a leading servant?
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