To Lead is to Serve

Any student of leadership is aware of and/or has embraced the core essence of leadership to be influence. Since the 1980’s, leadership professors and popular speakers have offered influence as the dominating verb of action for those who lead. By the 1990’s, the majority agreed that leadership was influence, “nothing more, nothing less.” Any working definition of leadership, both secular and sacred, includes some aspect of influence or the process of influence involving one or more followers for the purpose of moving them toward a shared vision or goal, whose source may be God’s or the leader’s.

As a follower of Jesus who has been assigned a position of leadership among a community of Christ followers on mission with God, I am tempted to embrace the popular description of leadership for those in my sphere of influence. Under the accepted description, I am to invest the currency of leadership, which is power and authority (personal and positional), to influence those on mission with me in order to accomplish our shared goals and vision. I can do this through a variety of ways, and people will respond, depending on the level of coercion or charisma I use.

But as I continue to study Scripture and to trust Jesus to be my mentor as his servant who leads where assigned, I remain convinced that Jesus did not come to influence people. He came to love them by serving them.

The verb of leadership among God’s people is to serve, not to influence. The school for leaders on mission with God is discipleship where one follows and emulates the Leader’s teachings and examples and serves others to further the Leader’s mission. This is different from how one leads and influences others toward shared visions and goals established by the group. We learn from Jesus that the motive to lead is love; the method of leadership is service.

If God connected with us as a servant, that becomes the way we too connect with the people of this world. While it runs counter to our natural desire, we have no choice. We are never more like Jesus than when we serve others. (Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood)

You may argue that service is simply a method of influence, and thus creating the moniker servant-leadership, which I am comfortable to use. Push beyond the wrangle to have a voice in the public square, however, and we learn that Jesus never called his followers to lead. He called them to follow him and to be his servants in order to fulfill the part of his mission assigned to them.

If leadership is service to others as a servant of Jesus, then the leader’s focus is to serve the needs of others first. The mission, vision, and core values of an organization are important, but they are secondary to the disciple’s mission of service in the name of Jesus. Yes, I am convinced that a servant of Jesus in a leadership role in any size group, company or organization can excel when his or her primary focus is serving those around them.

It was about serving the people well—above self-interest. That’s it! Serving others over self…Be a bold and brave leader. Serve the people well. (Cheryl Bachelder, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others, Bachelder is the CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen)

Jesus did not come to seek and to influence those with a mission and vision and core values for their lives. Jesus came to seek and to save (serve) those who were lost. They were those without hope and who, like us, invested their passions and desires in people and projects that could not and would not meet their deepest needs. Jesus’ love, demonstrated in service to those who trusted him, met those needs of belonging and purpose with eternal values.

In order to lead, one must serve. And not until he or she has learned how to serve and follow others can he or she become an effective leader. It was so with the Lord Jesus. With Saint Peter. With the apostle Paul. (Engstrom and Cedar, Compassionate Leadership)

Service motivated by Christ-like love is how servants of Jesus lead when given the assignment to do so. Christ-like leaders serve others. No matter the position, the work of a servant of Jesus is the same: Serve others in the name of Jesus.

In the blogs to follow, I want to address how a servant of Jesus in leadership role invests the currency of leadership: power and authority. I will also speak to the leading characteristic of a servant in leadership: humility. Other topics will follow as we continue this dialogue.

Feel free to post your reactions and comments.

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