It’s not enough to say that “leaders should be servants,” because all of us serve someone or something, even if it’s only ourselves. As the well-known Bob Dylan lyric puts it:
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
However consciously or unconsciously, we shape our lives around what matters to us. We invest time, abilities, resources, energy, and emotions in people for whom we care and in projects which reflect our interests.
For example, politicians can serve nothing more than their reelection, the special interests who fund their campaigns, and the chances to cash-in on their influence or insider-knowledge. Or they can serve the Constitution and the common good.
Business leaders can serve this quarter’s profits and this year’s return on investment, with too-little thought for how “short-termism” often results in mistreatment of employees, damage to the environment, indifference to the quality of life in the surrounding community, and failure to nurture the future health of their own enterprises. Or, they can take a longer-term view and make strategic decisions that are consistent with worthwhile values and that will lead to sustainable profits.
Clergy and nonprofit agency leaders can allow clamoring demands for a growing variety of programs, an expanding number of participants, and an increasing level of funding to cause them to lose sight of the mission, vision, and values of their organizations and of the actual and urgent needs of the people for whose sake programs and initiatives were created. Or, they can regularly revisit their reasons for being and ask their governing boards to join them in remembering that, just as “the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath,” their institutions exist, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the freeing and flourishing of people.
I could multiply examples from, among others, the media, healthcare, law, and education, but you get the idea: all leaders serve. It’s whom, what, why, and how we serve that determine the character and quality of our leadership, not simply the fact that we “serve.”
Jesus said: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Authoritarian, greedy, manipulative, and self-aggrandizing leadership serves the wrong ends and uses the wrong means. Jesus embodied the kind of servant-leadership which uses legitimate power for the good of others and seeks their greatness, a greatness of justice, mercy, peace, grace, abundance, and joy.
Over four decades ago, Robert K. Greenleaf wrote his seminal book, Servant Leadership. It was released just before I began seminary studies in 1978, and Greenleaf’s ideas have lingered with me. Recently, I picked it back up; and, this time, the subtitle caught my attention: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Just these few words make the important point that not all kinds of power and not all forms of greatness are legitimate. It’s not enough to say that we want to “make something great,” whether for the first time or again. We have to know whether or not it’s an inclusive, constructive, and life-enhancing greatness. Greenleaf said: “Servant-leaders are healers in the sense of making whole by helping others to a larger and nobler vision and purpose than they would be likely to attain for themselves.”
In these troubled times, we need leaders who work for healing and wholeness, rather than fragmentation and division. We need leaders who serve like Jesus.