The Problem with servant leadership

Leadership has always seemed kind of romantic to me. For as long as I can remember, I have yearned to be the person up front, the one casting the vision, leading the way, and making the tough calls. No matter the ministry or organization in which I served, I wanted to be one of the influencers.

Over the years, however, I have realized two things about my desire. The first is that leadership is not romantic at all! Not most days. Lonely? Yes. Stressful? Definitely. Leadership isn’t nearly as glamorous as I imagined.

The second thing I realized was that my desire to lead was entangled with selfish ambition. Much of my drive was just a craving for my own glory, rather than God’s. And for leaders, this is a common temptation.

Throughout the history of the church, the allure of acclaim has been referred to as “vainglory” which literally means “worthless glory.” The spotlight is seductive, which is why many Christian leaders fall prey to it, and can even be ruined by it.

So, how do we resist?

One of the answers to this temptation is a concept called “servant leadership.” The phrase was coined in 1970 by a business consultant named Robert Greenleaf. Decades later, Christians adopted the term in their churches and ministries, pointing to Jesus as the quintessential servant leader.

In many ways, the concept of servant leadership is a great way to resist the temptations of leadership, since it flips the mainstream notion of leadership on its head. What better way to keep leaders humble, than reminding them that they’re called to serve? I can certainly appreciate that, but I do so with one big qualification:

Servant leadership isn’t radical enough.

Servant leadership is helpful, but it isn’t countercultural enough. It doesn’t go all the way with Jesus.

Because here’s the thing about Jesus: he was more than a leader who served. He wasn’t just a leader who thought about others. He was a leader who washed his disciples’ feet. He was a leader who was stripped naked and humiliated for his followers. He was a leader who died for them. This goes far beyond mere service.

Sometimes I wonder if the term “servant leadership” makes palatable the grit and lowliness of truly Christ-like leadership. Christian leadership—leadership the way Jesus did it—lowers itself to almost humiliating degrees. It shows love in wholly undignified displays. It takes the arrows first. It suffers first. True Christian leaders lay themselves down for the people they’re leading.

When I think about Jesus’ example of leadership—which is better described as “sacrificial leadership”—I wonder if servant leadership is still too romantic. I wonder if it doesn’t require enough of us.

What, then, does sacrificial leadership look like? Based on Jesus’ example, as well as the example of godly leaders in my life, here are four practices I’ve observed:

  1. Raise others up. Not only did Jesus lay himself down to raise us up, but he dignified everyone around him. Sacrificial leadership does the same. A sacrificial leader goes out of her way to lift up the downtrodden and promote other leaders, even at the cost of her own comfort or platform.

  1. Do the dirty work. Nothing is below a sacrificial leader, whether it’s greeting new people, setting up chairs, or picking up trash. As a friend of mine put it, the shepherd should smell like the sheep.

  1. See people. No one was better at truly seeing people than Jesus. He gave people his time and attention, and he went out of his way to do it. This type of serving is not a huge sacrifice, but it is inconvenient. It imposes on the flow of our daily interactions, which is why many leaders gloss over it, but it was a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry and a surprisingly powerful gift.

  1. Learn from the people you lead. When I asked my Twitter followers for examples of Christ-like leadership, one woman described her pastor, who regularly sits under the teaching of other staff, simply to learn from them. What a great example! This practice not only enriches and humbles the leader, but it affirms and dignifies the team as well.

To be clear, sacrificial leaders are not called to a toxic over-commitment that ignores the Sabbath and tramples one’s family and friends. Instead, sacrificial leadership is about a particular kind of sacrifice. Like Jesus, it’s a sacrifice of status and privilege.

Jesus, being in very nature God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself and took the form of a servant (Philippians 2). For Christian leaders, this is the answer to our pride, and the shape of our call.

Sharon Hodde Miller

Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor's wife, and mom of two boys. In addition to recently completing her Ph.D, her first book will be released later this year with Baker Books, and she blogs at SheWorships.com. You can connect with Sharon on Twitter.

Join the discussion

Mercy Pushpalatha July 30, 2017 at 3:29pm

I just loved reading on Servant Leadership. Breaking the pride in servant leadership is really the challenge.Similarly living for others sake being sacrificial. Giving up my status and prestige ....A wonderful point to be pondered upon.

Sabrina July 30, 2017 at 4:27am

This was such a good read and very on point with how I thought and am constantly learning while I lead in ministry! I felt like you were writing about my own experience. Thank you, it's always nice to know we're not alone in the way we think and feel.

Stephanie July 29, 2017 at 12:29pm

Powerful read it imparted wisdom. Thank you

Jessica Lance July 26, 2017 at 12:38am

This was an awesome read!!! So much truth!!!

Susan Gruener July 24, 2017 at 6:33am

Loved this. Great points.
Thanks!

Ed Green July 21, 2017 at 5:41am

I would agree that what often passes today for servant leadership is a pale shadow of what we see demonstrated in the life and ministry of Jesus. Servant leadership is sacrificial. Leaders are servants first who are willing to make sacrifices as the Spirit leads. My question is, do we really need another term for it? Or, as you seem to suggest, has our leadership culture so watered it down that it no longer accurately describes our calling?