Servant Leadership – the Real Success Story

by Mark Klages, Christian Examiner Contributor |
Photo: Headway/Unsplash

If you Google "servant leadership" you will not find a single recognized authority that can define the term. Wikipedia has an entry akin to "a snowball is a ball of snow" or "a doghouse is a house for a dog." Seriously, the entry says "Servant leadership is a philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve." That same article gives credit to Robert K. Greenleaf as defining the philosophy after reading Hermann Hesse's "Journey to the East." Similar to other entries, Cheryl Williamson wrote an article for Forbes magazine titled "Servant Leadership: How To Put Your People Before Yourself." Williamson also credits Greenleaf, quoting his definitive passage, "The servant-leader is a servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first."

As respectable as they are, few of the Google entries actually credit the proper source for the philosophy of servant leadership. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus clearly defined servant leadership long before Hesse or Greenleaf coined a convenient phrase.

"...whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matt 20:26-28, NIV)

Jesus' example defines "servant leadership" very clearly. Use your position of authority to improve the lives of those under your charge. Put differently, your success as a leader is directly related to your desire to serve those you lead. He even gives us a little leeway to embrace human nature without being condemned for it – whoever wants to become great... whoever wants to be first.

But what does that mean for us, today, in business and in life, or in our Christian walk among non-Christians?

Let's reference the content of Williamson's article again. She gives a few examples of how her own approach to servant leadership has fostered growth for her and her companies, namely: Lead by example, Show that you really care, Invest time in your people, and Get dirty. I'll add my own – be genuine. This is all good advice coming from an established leader and manager whose point is to give concrete examples of what servant leadership should look like. Let's dig a little deeper.

Lead by example: Williamson cites a book donation drive she spearheaded wherein she donated her own books to a halfway house for post-incarceration women. Frankly, servant leadership doesn't have to be this grand. Be the one to open the door for your staff, don't "look preoccupied" or be "answering emails" and wait for one of them to open the door for you. Eat last when company lunch is provided. Be the first one in the door and get the boardroom ready for the meeting. These are simple ways to serve your people and still be in charge. Jesus' example is the perfect embodiment of servant leadership in that he gave his life so we may be saved.

Show that you really care: Williamson quotes the oft-used, "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," as an example and recommends using gift cards or offering a kind word in light of an employee's personal trauma. Go further. Instead of always speaking to your employees, listen first and provide immediate, effective feedback that you follow-up on. See if your actions actually make a difference and impact the employee similar to their anticipation. Give time for employees to handle unfortunate situations, but be the one to pick up their slack. Don't dole it out to others. Be thoughtful before you act to sustain your decisions to decrease workload or improve work-life balance. The gesture falls short if you can't make it permanent. (Reference: John 11:35)

Invest time in your people: The author recommends giving of your time to those in your charge and connect with them in ways beyond the job. Be present at dinner functions. Attend their kids' athletic events whenever possible. Ask for conflicts before changing all-hands functions that impact your own schedule. Be the first in the door so you can greet them when they arrive and be the last to leave for the same reason. You made it this far: Use the efficiencies you learned in business to improve your interaction with your team in life. (Reference: Mark 2:13-17)

Get dirty: Williamson reminds us that no job is too small, to dirty, too "beneath us" to show leadership. "Clean toilets if necessary" she says. Insinuating you are above "grunt work" gives your team the impression that you feel superior. So clean the toilet and wipe down the conference table or serving table after the working lunch. Refill the copying machine and restock the coffee when it gets low. Shovel the sidewalk. Carry boxes. Erase the white board when the meeting is over. Make room in your day to serve. You plan to lead, so plan to serve. (Reference: John 13:1-17)

Finally, be genuine. Trust me when I say your workforce can smell a rat a mile away. The average worker is just as smart as the leader, he or she may simply not have the same experience, education, or opportunity to shine, or maybe they are passionate about their work, not driven or ambitious to advance. Servant leadership is not a philosophy. It is a way of life. Your staff will know if you are performing for their benefit or if you are truly serving them. Like Christ did, make servant leadership your passion and watch how God moves.

"Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves." (Romans 12:9-10, NIV)