Ken Blanchard once said, “Leaders who are servants first will assume leadership only if they see it as the best way they can serve.” Servant leadership is not a flimsy, spineless, half-hearted leadership style that doesn’t deliver results. In fact, servant leadership isn’t a “style” at all. It’s a “nature.” It’s who you are.
There’s an interesting string of events in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus repeatedly defined servant leadership for his disciples. The disciples were hard-headed to say the least…not much different than most of us today. They were jockeying for position and Jesus had to clearly redefine what it means to follow Him and what it means to be a leader.
The process begins in Mark 9, when Jesus asked his disciples what they were discussing on the road to Capernaum. The Bible says, “The silence was deafening” (v. 34). They had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. So Jesus sits them down and says, “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all” (v. 35). Then he illustrates his point by cradling a child in his arms and says, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me–God who sent me” (v. 36-37).
Did the disciples get it? Apparently not! In the very next verse John says, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.” Sounds a bit like the pharisees way of thinking doesn’t it? Unless you fit my mold, Jesus can’t use you. Jesus corrects John and says, “If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally” and then goes on to say, “If you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck” (v. 42).
The lesson is clear: If you want to be a servant leader, you better value children–whether they’re physically young or spiritually young. But of course, the disciples were too thick-headed to see it.
In the very next chapter, people were bringing children to Jesus “hoping he might touch them” (v. 13). How did the disciples respond? “The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus was irate and let them know it: ‘Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.’ Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands of blessing on them.” Strike two!
Now, you would think by now the disciples would clue in to what leadership is all about. You would think they would catch a glimpse for the value of servanthood in leadership. But old habits die hard. In the very next chapter, James and John ask Jesus to arrange it, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory–one of us at your right, the other at your left.” (Mark 11:37). Strike three!
How many times was it going to take for the disciples to learn their lesson. Let’s make it personal: How many times have you and I struck out when it comes to servant leadership? When the other ten disciples heard about James and John’s brilliant question, they were livid and lost their tempers. Jesus settled them down and then fully redefined leadership:
“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served–and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
Jesus didn’t pull any punches. He boiled leadership down to one simple word that he himself fully modeled for his disciples: Serving. Serving everybody. Serving the least of these.
Do you want to fail Jesus’ servant leadership test? Here are five ways to do it:
1. Always seek to be first – Do everything you can to be first…and do everything possible to let everyone else know you are first. Admire yourself in the mirror and never look out the window to thank the people who made you who you are.
2. Place little value on children – Devalue kids, ignore their needs, de-emphasize their potential, and take a babysitting mentality toward children’s ministry.
3. Shun the spiritually young – Put passionate young believers in their place and make it known how much smarter you are than them.
4. Jockey for position – Claw and climb your way to the top, doing everything possible to make your name known.
5. Let power go to your head – Inflate your ego to a size that your self worth and value are based on your position and power. Use your power to get what you want rather than serve others.
Five simple steps to fail Jesus’ servant-leadership test. I can hear Jesus’ words now: “Strike one! Strike two! Strike Three! You too can have a millstone around your neck!”
But if you want to embrace Jesus’ model of leadership, be a servant. Love kids! Encourage the spiritually young. Take the last place. Give your life to a cause bigger than you. That’s what servant leadership looks like. God help us!