Servant Leadership

This is a great parable I once read:

A man once asked God about heaven and hell.

“I will show you hell,” God said, and took the man into a room.  A large banquet table in the center was laden with every conceivable delicacy.  The sight and smell of food were intoxicating.  Around the table sat miserable, famished and desperate people.  Each was holding a spoon with a long handle.  The spoons were strapped to their arms both above and below the elbow so that they could not bend their elbows and bring the spoons to their mouths.  As a result, they were starving.

“Now I will show you heaven,” God said, and the man found himself in an identical room with an identical banquet table laden with a magnificent array of foods.  Around this table were people equipped with the same long handle spoons strapped both above and below the elbows.  Yet these people were smiling, happy and well nourished.

“Same table, same food, same spoons.  Why are things different here?” asked the man.

“Ah, but there is one important difference,” God said in response.

 “Here in heaven, the people feed one another.”

A key piece of a rewarding life is helping others; being altruistic without feeling any obligation to do so. Service needs to not be limited to structured situations or planned events. These events are great and often serve a greater community need. However, to make a real difference in the world, it needs to be part of our everyday life.  It needs to be one-on-one and personal.  By making it part of our principles we touch more people in more ways, often without even being aware that we are doing something for someone else.  It just becomes second nature, a habit. It also becomes a representation of how we treat people.  Others can then be inspired by our actions.

Martin Luther King Jr. said it best, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” Once when a Jesuit theologian was asked by a young man which books to read to help him strengthen his faith, he responded simply: “No books, go out and help the poor.”

Servant leadership is a classic concept, actually it is an ancient concept. Lao-Tzu referenced servant leadership in the classic Chinese text “Tao Te Ching” as early as 500 BC. However, the term was coined in 1970, when Robert K. Greenleaf published his essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf maintained, “The servant leader is servant first.”

Servant leadership is not a style of leadership, but rather relates to the motivation behind a leader’s thoughts, words and actions. Leaders can fit any of the leadership styles and still be very much a servant leader.  Servant leaders are not leaders based on their position or leadership role, but rather lead according to their calling, vision and principles. Servant leaders model integrity, where their thoughts, words and actions flow from a consistent and grounded core. Leaders lose the respect of their followers when they lack true integrity. Where they are inconsistent, lack principles, concerned about being popular or what is appropriate to the moment.

Compare Dorothy and the Wizard as leaders, servant leaders. The Wizard defines his role with power and authority using fear. He barks out orders and comments all the while hiding behind a structure. Meanwhile Dorothy is a peer. She built a team based on relationships, common goals, and compassion where everyone reaches their potential. All the while out in the open and vulnerable.

All Christians are called to be servants, serving each other, following Jesus’ example in washing His disciples’ feet, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Servant leadership is at the heart of Christian leadership. Servant leadership is found in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi (Philippians 2:3-5), “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but everyone for those of others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus.” The appeal is to have in relations among yourselves that same relationship you have in Jesus Christ, i.e., serving one another as you serve Christ.

When the disciples were requesting elevated positions in the coming kingdom, Jesus corrected their perception of leadership by pointing to the servant aspect of Biblical leadership: Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” –  Matthew 20:25-28. The request of the sons of Zebedee, made through their mother, for the highest places of honor in the kingdom, and the indignation of the other ten disciples at this request, show that neither the two brothers nor the others understood that what makes for greatness in the kingdom is not lordly power but humble service.

We need more ‘Dorothy’ in the world, less ‘Wizard.’ A tremendous outcome of service to others is ‘peace at heart’.  By focusing on helping others, whether less fortunate or our peers, we can build a family, team, company, community, even nation meant for greatness.

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