Servant-leadership is the most effective, yet most despised, form of leadership. It’s counter-intuitive to the drive and ambition that sits at the heart of so many leaders. It doesn’t contribute to a leader’s ego, nor does it attract attention to self. That act of serving feels like an emotional bankruptcy of leadership fame. We feel robbed, as if the limelight flickered to black as it passed over us.
If anybody deserved fame, attention, and self-promoting head nods, it was Jesus. Yet as he began his farewell message, sitting at the table with his disciples, he resisted the temptation of self-serving praise. Jesus took the high road by taking the low road of servanthood. He washed his disciples’ feet…a job reserved for the lowliest in society. From Jesus’ example in John 13, we learn the essential ingredients to servant leadership:
1. Servant-Leadership Requires Love.
John 13:1 says, “Before the Passover celebration, Jesus knew that his hour had come to leave this world and return to his Father. He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end.”
Jesus equated love with serving. Loving to “the the very end” meant assuming the position of the lowest in society. Jesus wasn’t looking for perks and privileges to line his road to the cross. He was content to model true love by taking a towel and a basin of water and serving his team.
2. Servant-Leadership Requires Humility.
John 13:2-3 says, “It was time for supper, and the devil had already prompted Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God.” I find it quite amazing that Jesus, having all authority and power on earth, refused to leverage his position for personal gain. Most people with that kind of power would expect to be served.
The role of humility and leadership is quite profound. Humility is dethroning the attitude of self-promotion, and embracing the action of selfless-serving. Author John Dickson observes that in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Latin, the word “humble” means “low,” as in “low to the ground.” Used in a negative way, these terms mean “to be put low,” that is, “to be humiliated.” It implies being conquered or put to shame (which was the dominant use of the word in Jesus’ day).
But Dickson notes that when used in a positive way, it means “to lower yourself” or “to be humble.” When Jesus washed his disciples feet, he wasn’t being humiliated. He was making a noble choice to redirect his power to the benefit of his disciples. John Dickson defines humility as, “The noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself…The humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others.”
3. Servant-Leadership Requires Initiative
John 13:4 begins, “So he got up from the table…” All serving begins with the initiative to push away from the table of comfort where we sit. It’s tempting to remain at the table because table-sitters are typically served. The moment you get up from the table, you step into the role of serving. Jesus resisted the temptation of comfort, pushed away from the table, and knelt at the dirty feet of his disciples.
In the remaining verses—4-16—Jesus leverages his leadership to serve…including Judas, the man who would betray him. His commitment to serve was truly characterized by pure motives. Then Jesus spoke these words:
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you” (John 13:13-15).
Jesus not only MODELED serving, he also MANDATED serving. He put action to his words by acting before he spoke. What’s the servant-leadership lesson for us today?
Servant-leadership is the loving, humble, initiative to serve others as Jesus did.
To top it all off, Jesus said, “Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them” (John 13:17). People usually define blessing by what you can get. Jesus defined blessing by how you can give.
I discovered a long time ago that the happiest people on earth are those who serve. People who spend their lives in constant pursuit of more are never happy. They are never content. They always search for how they can get, get, get. But people who are content, satisfied, and at peace are those who have learned the art of serving. And because they learned to serve, they discovered what it means to be blessed.
The same principle holds true in leadership. The most satisfied leaders (and the most effective leaders) are those who lead by serving and serve by leading. Their aim is to add value to others. Servant-leadership is the loving, humble, initiative to serve others as Jesus did. How do you define servant-leadership?