The Revolution of Servant Leadership
Jesus demonstrated to us what genuine servant leadership and authority really looks like by becoming both a servant and a King, writes Paul Tothill.
It seems almost ridiculous to write about leadership given the vast resources that exist on the topic. Yet in a postmodern world leadership is more important than ever, even if the social culture of our day strays from its wisdom.
The church also seems to be in a state of flux - many emerging leaders reacting to models of leadership that were more disempowering than empowering and more positional than relational. Both organisational management coaches, Harvard Business School research papers and articles and Scripture actually come together with respect to servant leadership.
I don’t propose to discuss all that needs to be considered on that topic in this blog. However there are some thoughts I would like to present. Let me make a bold statement from the outset: inspirational leadership is needed today more than ever. Society, the church, families and people need leadership, not because they need to be controlled and limited but because they need to be inspired, guided and empowered.
The revolution of servant leadership
Whilst the organisational management trend of servant leadership was developed over 50 years ago, and has recently had something of a renaissance, its origins date back to ancient times. When Jesus was preparing himself to go to the Cross of His suffering, at the Passover Feast He demonstrated and taught the future apostolic fathers of His church what genuine servant leadership looked like and would involve.
Ken Blanchard has more recently used this theme in his organisational management book on servant leadership and has been employing its teaching with success.
The narrative and teaching is found in the Gospel of John Chapter 13. Let me give some context. As mentioned Jesus is now in the most fundamental time of His ministry. He is of course the coming cosmic King who has now come. The One who spoke creation into being. That is how the apostles would have seen him. Jesus enters this scene by becoming a common servant in the household. By becoming a servant did Jesus lose any of His authority as King? Not at all. He established it. In His authority as the King Jesus chose to serve those who had chosen to come to Him and follow Him and who would carry His work beyond their own personal sphere of influence.
When Jesus got up from the table, wrapped a towel around His waist, and poured water into the basin to wash His disciples feet, He demonstrated something significant about lifting people into a place of value and honour to empower them. As Jesus began in the lowliest task of a household of washing His disciples feet, He created a revolution of empowering leadership that Peter, His disciple, immediately recognised but did not understand. Peter had seen the conduct of both the religious and political leaders of his day. The behaviour of Jesus shocked him and moved him to the place of exclamation and mystery. He felt so unaccustomed to a leader behaving as Jesus did that Peter initially protested that Jesus could not wash his feet!
Then when Jesus had finished and dressed himself, He taught on leadership. It was obvious that washing the feet of those who are following your leadership is a metaphor. We are willing through our leadership to touch even the most unclean or most commonly used part of their life and bring it into a place restoration and empowerment by granting them honour and value. It gives the understanding of how true leadership authority draws out the best and creates aspiration to those you are leading through the display of genuine honour and worth. In His authority Jesus found no task was above Him and no task was below Him. His heart was to ensure that those who followed Him understood this key principle as the heart of what they would themselves now do in carrying apostolic leadership and authority.
“Do you understand what I just did? “ Jesus said. “ You’ve called me your teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that’s who I am. So if I’m your teacher and Lord and have just washed your dirty feet, then you should follow my example that I’ve set for you. I speak to you a timeless truth: a servant is not superior to his master, and an apostle is ever greater than the one who send him. So now put into practice what I have done for you, and you will experience a life of happiness enriched with untold blessings!”
- John 13:12-17
Loaded into the demonstration is the rabbinical model of teaching and the implied desire for a disciple to live what their rabbi lived, not just know what their rabbi knew.
Authority was to be carried in humility and submission to its genuine purpose ie why it is given. These future apostolic fathers were to carry their authority as Jesus did and how the Father in heaven does. Jesus explained to Philip his disciple, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father." Jesus was showing how true leadership authority empowers others.
Jesus was once more developing the combined idea of authority, honour, humility and submission. Jesus himself moved in authority because He was submitted to a greater authority. But the nature of the authority was to serve with a heart of a King to lift people up to a place of value and to empower them into purpose for their life. Elsewhere we know Jesus came to serve. As Bill Johnson says. “Jesus served with the heart of a king and ruled with the heart of a servant.”
Submission and authority has been misrepresented
The word submission in modern thought sounds like a disempowering word. It implies I must lose my own authority and thereby become disempowered should I submit to a person’s authority and leadership. This is why so many people struggle with authority, largely because of how the relationship between authority and submission has been represented to them. Experience shapes the meaning of the words we use.
By contrast Jesus modelled that we are empowered by equality of personhood but diversity of function and submission to authority.
What Jesus was saying it seems, at least at core, challenging the disciples long held views of religious and worldly authority, is that genuine authority creates a place for genuine submission by example and honour so that the follower also comes into an authority and place of empowerment. Jesus had to come under God’s authority to reveal His authority. This is something I have learnt.
Although I lead a work, when I travel into another person’s work and sphere of authority I submit myself to that authority. As I give honour to that authority I receive what that person carries, or what that work carries. I come into a place of increase, protection and empowerment to add what I can to that work. We all increase. I have done this numerous times in churches where a person is under my leadership in the local church, but I come under their leadership and authority where that person has been given a sphere of authority and where they have established a work overseas. This often confuses church leaders. But this is the power of honour, authority and submission and how submission actually empowers us and brings us into a place of combined increase.
To put it slightly differently, authority is given to empower others by giving them value, worth, guidance, protection and development towards a common set of goals or shared outcomes. Inspirational leaders in this regard create aspirational followers or teams. Authority is not to be used by the leader to exploit others they lead, but instead, to use it for the benefit of others who have chosen to bring themselves into a place of empowerment and release through their submission to that recognised leadership authority. Of course this requires positional authority moving to relational authority through creating an environment of value and worth, and building trust.
In both life and the church we carry leadership authority in our heart not just as a position or title. Leadership may be a promotion in some people’s eyes but it comes with increased responsibilities. Those you are leading are not just following your words they are following your life. Genuine leadership is less about the position you hold and more about the heart you carry. Your position will never inspire anyone if your life doesn’t!
People follow your life example as a leader
Anyone who has watched Braveheart may remember the great battle scene towards the end of the movie. The Scottish Lords were positioned on horseback. These Lords carried title, privileges and the authority to make decisions for the people. The battle lines were drawn and the English were not going anywhere. The fighting men of the nation would obey the Lords even if reluctantly. But the situation called for more than that. They needed something to fight for and someone to follow that would inspire them. A title does not do that, but our life example does.
William Wallace rides into the scene as the warriors murmur they thought he would be taller given the myths surrounding his reputation. Wallace retorted about thunderbolts. William Wallace was not a Lord with position and authority. But he was deeply admired by a people who saw his heart revealed in the myths they created about him because of his exploits. His life carried an authority that the men would follow. What they believed he lived. His life was inspirational. People will obey positional authority but they will follow an inspirational example.
William Wallace inspired the men to a fight for freedom in a way that the Lords could not. To repeat in another way. People don’t follow titles they obey them. In their hearts, people follow those who have their heart and who are willing to inspire them by example into something greater.
Too often leadership creates victims, not empowered people, by the way in which leadership authority is exercised. Many leaders incorrectly encourage learned helplessness so they can continually be the rescuer, often to satisfy their own needs or control of power. This type of leadership sees a problem with those under their leadership authority and instead of helping them, listening to them and enabling them, by teaching them and helping them carry their responsibility, it takes on their responsibility for them, thereby disempowering them.
Then on the other side of the leadership equation we have those who are purely instructional and positional placing outcomes ahead of the person and drive people towards deadlines often barking instructions. The authority is used to create outcomes only. People are not valued. Outcomes are. Again this creates a victim or disempowered person.
Moving beyond positional authority
The better model of leadership is what Jesus was pointing to. A leader who leads by example not just position. Beyond that, a model that creates a listening, valuing and honouring culture of leadership through coaching a person to a place of empowered responsibility. This approach asks questions, engages, listens and teaches, empowering the follower to new understanding and if necessary the desire to learn new skills. It is amazing how a valued person becomes motivated towards participation and the desire to share in the leader’s vision.
The great skill that Simon Sinek speaks about that reinforces the way authority gives value to a person they are leading is to learn to speak last as the leader, not first. As Sinek concedes that is easier said than done. I can tell you that from my own experience. Sinek contends that by genuinely listening to others on your team, asking questions and understanding their point of view, even when it may not be your point of view, it affords the team member significant value. Leading will often require listening and engaging with your team rather than simply instructing your team or those you are leading. Their perspective may offer genuine assistance to your leadership and how your team may best realise it’s shared vision..
When leaders get down into the dirt, roll their sleeves up and invite their followers into a shared vision remembering the value that each person has both as a person and in achieving the vision through shared values; where people are heard and valued, coached and empowered to live the way the leader is living, leading by example just as Jesus did, our leadership becomes more than just positional- it becomes inspirational.
It becomes counter to what we have previously experienced. We begin to see the importance again of genuine inspirational leadership and authority when it creates an empowered space for everyone to develop and aspire to living beyond mere compliance towards creativity, loyalty and excellence. Creating this kind of space is never the loss of genuine authority. Instead it establishes authority as it inspires others to live beyond themselves too. Authority is designed to achieve something beyond the person who carries it.
Servant leadership is more than what has been discussed of course. One final thought however. Jesus never lost his authority by washing his disciples feet. He established it. It took Peter some time to gain insight and understanding about how this kind of leadership worked. If Peter’s letters help us at all it seems his apostolic authority was not established because of his position but because of the heart he carried towards those his life was to lead and inspire.
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