The Wisdom of Leadership

As a fellow elder, witness of Christ’s suffering, and partaker in his glory, I, Peter, encourage elders as follows: Feed your flock, looking over them not because you must, but because you want to serve other people; not for what you get out of leadership, but with a servant spirit; not out of arrogant pride, but with humility. If you lead in this way, when Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, appears you will receive an eternal crown of glory (I Peter 5:1-4, GCS translation).

During the 1970’s, an executive for AT&T wrote a leadership book entitled “Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.” The book was a culmination of Greenleaf’s years as an executive and his interest in leadership. In the book, he developed a theory that servanthood is the key to real, authentic leadership. In so doing, he was sharing in secular terms a notion of leadership that began with Jesus–a vision of leadership that, in my view, is not sustainable without faith in the God of Wisdom and Love revealed by Christ. Greenleaf’s interest in leadership began in college when a professor spoke these words: “There is a new problem in our country. We are becoming a nation that is dominated by large institutions—churches, businesses, governments, labor unions, universities—and these big institutions are not serving us well.” [1] If a lack of true, transforming, life-enhancing leadership was a problem in Greenleaf’s youth, it is a worse problem today.

team1The notion of “servant leadership” would never have emerged without the revelation of Christ nor can it be sustained without an underlying Christian World-View. Why do I believe this? If you look at contemporary leadership in business, government, churches, universities, and other institutions, one is struck by the following paradox: leaders often mouth concern over those they lead but seldom actually serve their best interests in humility. There is a lot of talk about “servant leadership,” but very few actual servant leaders. A good bit of the time, so-called “Servant Leaders” talk about servant leadership, while all the time receiving exorbitant salaries, abusing the symbols of power and influence provided for them by their institution, and making decisions and engaging in behaviors completely at odds with the best interests of the members, shareholders, stakeholders, citizens they reportedly serve. Often, they engage in a despicable tradeoff: “You give me power in return for my promise to serve your best interests, a promise I do not intend to actually keep.” Worse, some of these leaders are what I would call demonic leaders who engage in this tradeoff: If you will give me power, I will do things that will not improve your life. In fact I will do things that may cost you your job, your sense of security, or your sense of self-respect.”

In order to develop and sustain servant leadership, there must be leaders whose character is formed in such a manner that they are wiling to suffer for those they lead. By “suffer,” I mean servant leaders must constantly be willing to exercise self-denial and self-control, seeking the best for those they lead and resisting every temptation to manipulate or take advantage of them. Without the notion implicit in Christian faith that self-giving love is the way to true leadership and wholeness both personally and for those one serves, it is almost impossible to sustain a servant posture in the face of the temptations that leadership always brings. Christians have a ministry as they serve humbly, with a servant spirit, in whatever form of leadership to which they are called.

For many years, I had the privilege of being mentored by a person with great leadership ability, yet never or rarely misused his power. There are many stories people tell about this person. One involves a day on which he and a local mega-church pastor were to be honored as outstanding community leaders. The other pastor arrived in an expense “power suit,”  surrounded by a retinue of assistants. My friend arrived in khaki’s, all alone, and sat in the back of the room until his name was called. He was actually embarrassed to be honored. Over and over again, my friend would warn me not to think more highly of myself than I ought and to avoid getting carried away with leadership. One of this most telling observations went something like this: “Do not emulate those pastors who take themselves too seriously and get too involved in high profile, self aggrandizing ministries. They always come to a bad end.” Most of the time, he has turned out to be right.

[1] Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1977), 1.

Copyright 2014, G.Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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