Service, The Heart, and Leadership

I want to return to the topic I started with in this series of blogs on servant leadership, that to lead is to serve.1 I recently read an article describing Pope Francis’ annual Holy Week trip to wash the feet of prisoners. In his homily on Maundy Thursday, he said, “Those who lead, must serve.”2 He observed,

Let’s think throughout history. If so many kings, emperors, heads of state, had understood this commandment of Jesus [while washing the feet of his disciples], instead of giving orders, being cruel, had behaved like this, how many wars would not have happened…3

Pope Francis reminds us that service is essential for those whom God places in positions of leadership for eternal purposes. What would the world be like if world leaders had followed Jesus’s example?

Robert Greenleaf placed service prior to leading in his famous definition of servant leadership; however, I have yet to find anyone who has “the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” It has taken a life-long relationship with Jesus, my Servant Leader, to find any desire to “serve first.” My natural feeling is predominantly about my well-being and taking care of me first. Jesus had to teach me to serve first. I am still taming my ego to do so.

So, how do we get to a serve-first “natural feeling?” Why is serving others a hurdle rather than a springboard to authentic, inspiring leadership?

I believe the answers start with the leader’s heart. And, I am certain that serving others is one way to expose one’s true motives of the heart and, paradoxically, it is a way to heal one’s heart motives. Here’s why.

Leaving our place of leadership and kneeling to meet the needs of those we lead is an exercise of the heart, which is not naturally inclined to that stance. Reggie McNeal observes:

The Scripture teaches that since the Garden, we humans cannot help ourselves. We will to some degree declare ourselves to be God. We corrupt the image of God, the Godlike power to choose, by acting on it inappropriately. We choose to curse rather than to share. We choose to exert power over people rather than to serve them. On and on the list goes.4

Dr. Eric Johnson, who will be the speaker at this year’s B. H. Carroll’s Frank and Pauline Patterson Spring Colloquy and author of God and Soul Care: the Therapeutic Resources of the Christian Faith, reminds us that

Ethical evil flows from spiritual sin…This is because without God’s supremacy and love, humans look to the closest analogue—human relationships—to fill the void that mere creatures cannot fill. Nevertheless, whether with narcissistic tyranny (pride) or codependent conformity (sloth), we manipulate others in a doomed attempt to repair our transcendent loneliness.5

Read that quote again. Dr. Johnson is saying that by our “willed loneliness” called sin, we seek to manipulate others to heal our self-imposed loneliness. We do not “naturally” seek to serve and by doing so our true self-centered selves are exposed. Service motivated by the love of Jesus exposes (and can heal) our sin-induced lonely heart.

We get tangled in poor relationships when we seek to comfort our lonely hearts by manipulating others to serve us rather than fill our emptiness with service to others.

But the heart is not only a hurdle to serve others. It can be the springboard to authentic, service-first leadership.

Ralph Enlow, President of the Association of Biblical Higher Education and author of The Leader’s Palette: Seven Primary Colors, recently made available to association schools Eugene Habecker’s book, The Softer Side of Leadership. Habecker identifies one of the softer skills of leadership to be “stay connected to the heart.”

Habecker insists:

When hearts are fully and healthily engaged in the workplace, both individuals and organizations are more fully protected from the ravages of a militant and potentially destructive self-interest.6

A heart healed by the suffering, sacrificial love of Jesus protects rather than ravages others in relationship.

How do we as leaders jump the hurdle of our “willed loneliness” to be “fully and healthily engaged” with those we lead in order to serve them?

That’s the topic of our next blog.

For now, put on your to-do list one act of service toward someone you lead this week. Make it a sort of “washing feet” activity like completing one of their tasks that is below your pay grade or offering an ear to a colleague you know is going through a tough time. As you do what you have decided to do, listen to your heart; it does not lie.  

  2. Accessed 5 April, 2018.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Reggie McNeal. A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders (Kindle Locations 1055-1056). Kindle Edition.
  5. Eric Johnson, God and Soul Care, 224.
  6. Eugene Habecker, the softer side of leadership, 88.

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Published: Apr 11, 2018


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