What it Takes to Be a Servant Leader

by Andy Wood on August 25, 2010

in Enlarging Your Capacity, Five LV Laws, Leadership, Life Currency, LV Cycle, Principle of Eternity, Principle of Legacy

Ask most any Christ follower who or what the ultimate model for leadership is, and they’ll point you to Jesus Christ. 

Ask that same Christ follower what the ultimate standard for leadership is, and they’ll probably land on servanthood.  “Jesus was a servant leader,” they will opine, “and He called His followers to lead by serving.”

Okay, so far, so good. One more question.

Ask that same believer to name somebody from among the most successful ministries or institutions who actually practices servant leadership across the board…

…and watch their pupils widen.  The headlights just caught the deer.

In spite of all our claims to servant leadership, the honest truth is that leadership on a grand scale means knowing what to do with opportunity, influence, power, and public image.  Can a leader have all of that and remain a servant?


But will he?

Camels and the eye of the needle come to mind.

The dirty little secret, even of well-loved and highly-respected organizations, is that in many of the hallowed halls and sacred spaces of leadership rests a CEO, a president, a pastor, or a board whose will is law, and whose immediate impact on subordinates is fear.  Their lives, once laid bare, are often characterized by material comfort, ego management, and pleasure.

Is that completely wrong?  As a fruit of labor… not necessarily.  As an ambition… oh yes

Christians – particularly Christian leaders – have a goofy relationship with ambition.  We live in a world that rewards it.  We can even find a few Bible verses that suggest having it.  But we can also become intoxicated by the results of it.  So what are we to do with ambition?

Try washing some feet.

Peter’s Pedicure

It’s one of the most familiar episodes in the ministry of Jesus.  Not long before His crucifixion, after enjoying a fine evening meal, Jesus strapped on a towel, grabbed a basin of water, and began washing the disciples’ feet.

A gripping scene.  Peter protested, but wisely backed down when Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part in Me.”

Later, Jesus explained that He did that as an example of the kind of attitude they should have toward one another.  But what often goes unnoticed is how John sets up this scene.  Something took place in the “inner-leader world” of Jesus that prompted all this.

Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father… knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself (John 13:1-4).

John mentions four things Jesus knew:

1.  Opportunity:  He knew His hour had come (v. 1).  Jesus knew that He soon would be, in John’s words, “glorified.”  But that glorification involved death on a cross as the ultimate expression of love for the world.  Knowing that His hour had come, this was no time for business as usual.  The lessons had to be memorable, and first priorities had to be on the table.

2.  Influence:  He knew He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world (v. 1).  Jesus knew He would be doing more than just saying good-bye.  He would leave this bunch in charge.  This was a critical moment for leaving them with both a precept and an example.

3.  Power:  He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands (v. 3).  He knew the victory was secured, and His authority was undisputed.  He had full control of the destiny of the world and the people in it.

4.  Identity:  He knew that He had come from God, and would be returning to God (v. 3).  He had nothing to prove to anybody.  Not the disciples, nor the Jews.

Here’s the point of all this:  Washing the disciples’ feet was the outward expression and decision of what Jesus knew about His opportunities,  His world, His identity, and His authority.

What do you do when your moment of crisis and opportunity has come?  Serve.

What do you do when you know your time is short on this earth, and you have an appointment with the Father?  Serve.

What do you do when you are given unlimited authority and power?  Serve.

What do you do when you know who you are, and have nothing to prove to anybody?  Serve.

So You Want to Be a Servant Leader

In the world of men, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  But in the Kingdom of God, there is a completely different standard, and the promise of a completely different experience.

Do you want to lead people to greatness?  Lead an organization to fulfill its greatest potential?  Do you long to make a difference, both in the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of our God?

You can.  But you’re going to have to get ambitious.  Not toward the external trappings of pride and prosperity.  In this Kingdom, it’s the inner world where we keep score.  Target your ambitions toward the inner world that Jesus demonstrated, and the outer world will take care of itself.

What does it take to be a Servant Leader?  Make this your ambition:

1.  To seize opportunity – To know that life is built around purposeful moments (hours) of opportunity, and that those are by nature limited in duration.  In other words, they don’t last forever, and don’t always return.  Just as something fired off in the mind of Jesus and said, “It’s time,” you, too must be ready when choice, memorable opportunities for service present themselves.

2.  To maximize influence – To know that life is short, and you will be leaving people behind to take your life, influence and power further… or to forget you.  Jesus knew He was looking at the ongoing future of His ministry.  He also knew they were most moved by object lessons.  So He maximized His influence by modeling what He wanted them to do.

3.  To exercise authority – To know that in God’s economy you have authority and power, both of which are gloriously dangerous… and to pursue the use of power and authority in a way that serves, ennobles and meets the needs of others.  The whole ministry of Jesus, from both a cosmic and an earthly level, was characterized by not selfishly clutching authority and power for Himself.  He knew what we constantly need to rediscover:  The greatest assets in the world are those that grow as we give them away.

4.  To demonstrate identity – To know who you are, and to reach the place where you don’t have to prove yourself, defend yourself, compare yourself to others, or beat yourself up because of performance or rejection by people.  From this time forward in the ministry of Jesus, He never argued with anybody again about who He was or why He came.  He didn’t have to.  He had nothing to prove, except that which would take Him to the cross.  There is no place in Kingdom leadership for insecurity, inadequacy, or inferiority.  Jesus could serve freely, love deeply, and influence powerfully because He knew who He was and acted on it. 

Go thou and do likewise.

Diane Johnson March 25, 2015 at 8:34 am

This is an excellent and timely article on servant leadership recieved at a time when I needed it most. It provides a clear interpretation John 13:1-4, the 4 steps will certainly empower my journey as a servant leader with clarity and purpose.

Clifton Strickland July 28, 2015 at 8:49 am

Good morning Professor Wood,

You appear to understand business and the fear factor. Since profit runs most companies, how might a Christian leader live in two worlds?


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