Humility and the Servant Leader

Humility is to servant leaders what pride is to narcissistic leaders. The first measures their service as a leader by the One who called them to that position. Jesus’s teachings and example are the metrics of ultimate success no matter their assigned task. The latter benchmarks their effectiveness by their own self-value, ambition, and the placement of their chess pieces on the company organizational chart. Researchers have observed narcissistic leaders can be effective and add to the bottom line—and companies and non-profits (and churches) like an increased bottom line.

But these leaders have a serious dark side that can destroy the very entity they have built for themselves: their efforts and relationships are for their own advancement. Followers may benefit from the leader’s efforts but lose everything in the end when the leader falls. To narcissists, the worth of those they lead is secondary to their own self-perceived value. They will sacrifice the very group they lead in order to advance their self-proclaimed worth. History is saturated with noteworthy examples.

Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege
comes at the expense of self-interest.
–Simon O. Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

We all know of or have worked with self-aggrandizing leaders. We may fear or respect them, but somewhere down deep we don’t trust them. Why?

Jesus of Nazareth walked among narcissistic leaders in his day, but he demonstrated humility, a value not respected in the culture. John Dickson, in his book Humilitas, noted that

Philotimia, literally [means] the love of honour (timē). The pursuit of honour(s), tangible or intangible, was a constant of elite behaviour throughout Graeco-Roman antiquity…

Dickson went on to observe,

…what established humility as a virtue in Western culture was not Jesus’s persona exactly, or even his teaching, but rather his execution—or, more correctly, his followers’ attempt to come to grips with his execution…For them [Christians] the crucifixion was not evidence of Jesus’s humiliation (humilitas) but proof that greatness can express itself in humility (humilitas), the noble choice to lower yourself for the sake of others…

The Romans and religious leaders saw Jesus’s execution as humilitas in its most demeaning and degrading sense. In the ancient Mediterranean’s culture of honor and shame, humility was equated with shame. Honor was the preferred path. As followers of Jesus wrestled with the meaning of their leader’s execution, they were reminded that Jesus had refused the cultural value of philotimia and taught and demonstrated humilitas as the means to true greatness.

Humility, not self-promotion, made it into the vocabulary of faith. For example, Paul used the verb form of philotimia in Rom 15:20 when he wrote that his “love of honor” was to preach the gospel where it was not yet known. In his second letter to the Corinthians (5:9), he wrote that they were to make their pleasing the Lord as their philotimia. The Apostle’s only other use of the term occurs in 1 Thess 4:11 where he insisted Christian’s philotimia be to lead a quiet life and to work. No other New Testament writer used the term. But search “humility” in your Bible software, and you will find its prominence in New Testament writings.

Jesus’s values trumped those of culture. He described himself as “gentle and humble in heart.” (Matt. 11:29) The linguists Louw and Nida tell us, “in the context of Mt 18:4 it is often important to use an idiomatic expression which will adequately convey the meaning, for example, ‘one who causes his heart to bow down’ or even ‘one who makes his heart small.’” (88:56) Jesus taught his disciples at a banquet a secret about philotimia when he said, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) Greatness, according to Jesus in the shadow of a Romanized Jerusalem, was achieved through service and the willingness to lay down your life for another. (Mark 10:42-45) The cross of Jesus demonstrated the suffering, sacrificial love of God for us. Jesus’s humble service in life and death is the hallmark of those who claim to trust and follow him.

…the Savior instructs us as well as his core leadership team that servant leadership is the humble service of others based on our love for them.
–A. Malphurs, Being Leaders

Jesus’s followers today face the same dilemma as their Leader of living as servants in a world that values honor through self-promotion. We are fortunate that the value of honor through sacrifice still lingers on the lips of Americans, but restoring the value of true humility in our leadership culture can only be established as those who follow and trust Jesus demonstrate in word and action how Jesus led as the world’s Suffering Servant Savior.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
–Philippians 2:3,4

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