Real Leadership

This is the first of a four part series on the issues of servant-leadership. (1 of 4)

When I was a kid, the house next door had a huge sloping lawn for its backyard. It started as a steep incline that gradually leveled out near the bottom. There was no fence like in my yard, so the hill was open to all the other yards around it.

In a neighborhood of small houses this expanse of green was an oasis of freedom where the backyards of six or seven houses joined each other. It became one main gathering spots for all of the neighborhood kids to sled, log roll, ride bikes, and play the classic backyard game King of the Hill.

Also called King of the Mountain or King of the Castle, the object of King of the Hill is to stay on top of a large hill or pile as “The King.” Other players try to knock the current king off of the hill, take his place, and thus becoming the new king. Reigns are often short lived.

The way kings can be toppled depends largely on the rules determined by the players before the game starts. In my neighborhood, this included pushing, pulling, and sometimes punching and kicking (or even biting if that weird kid from around the corner showed up). King of the Hill was one of those games that taught us about life (whether we knew it or not). It was as close to jungle law as my suburban childhood got. It was survival of the fittest or fastest or smartest or whoever was the last to be called home for supper. I learned more about how to use power in those afternoons between school and dinner playing King of the Hill than my father ever taught me.

King of the Hill has become a familiar cultural metaphor for any sort of social activity in which a single person obtains power or status over multiple competitors where winning can only be achieved at the cost of ousting the reigning winner. It’s a lot like the reality TV-show Survivor. Survivor is a game of adaptation, and it focuses on the people, and the social commentary that surrounds them. How can these players “Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast” is the question that the game revolves around. Really it comes down to whoever is the most manipulative, controlling, sneaky, and powerful—who’s the king of the hill.

Our culture defines leadership in much the same context as King of the Hill and Survivor. Whatever you need to do to get those you lead to do what you need them to do is fair game . . . within reason, but that really depends who is leading and in what culture. Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third President of the United States said it this way, “My definition of a leader . . . is a man who can persuade people to do what they don’t want to do, or do what they’re too lazy to do, and like it.”

So is that what leadership is? Is that what a leader is about—getting people to do what he wants and make them like it? While that may be one way of looking at it, we think that there is perhaps more to it than that.

At its most basic level, a leader is anyone who has power or position to guide, direct, or influence people. When we use the word “leader” we really want you to think in terms of all the ways you have influence. Work? Maybe, but for sure consider leadership in terms of marriage, parenting, friendships, in-laws, and extended family. Anywhere in this chapter, where you read, “leader” you could insert, “father,” “husband,” “friend,” etc. You get the idea?

In most rock bands the lead singer is the leader. Why? Is there something magical about the position? Not really. The lead singer is the front man, the guy or girl who directs the show and is first to receive the acclaim and criticism. Most often the lead singer is the guy who everybody else looks to and trusts to get the job done. Rock stars, pastors, coaches, principals, fathers, husbands, whomever, uses their influence to reach certain goals, and the goals are often more important than the people used in reaching them.

Too often most leaders assume their positions because of their desire to lead. Out of what is often legitimate passions and giftedness, these leaders assume standing where they can more successfully exercise their will. They essentially lead for the gain in the name of the organization, group, or entity they operate (whether that be a family, a business, a sports team, a church, or a civic organization). Their work is far more about performance than assistance. Being helpful or generous is secondary to landing on top.

But their seems to be a different model out there too—a model that’s not about gain or production as much as it is about helping people be more alive to themselves and to the mission at hand. This alternate model of leadership is most commonly known as “Servant Leadership.”

A man that is a servant-leader is a person who is entirely different from someone who is leader first. Becoming a servant-leader begins with the desire to help—to offer others the very comfort, compassion, and content you have been given. Servant leadership says, “Someone profoundly helped me, and having received the gift of that, now I want to help others in the same way.” A servant-leader is a servant first and always is birthed out of passion and gratitude. Servant leadership is a decision that arises from a rescued heart, a reformed character, a reclaimed desire, and a renewed willingness. Because it is based in a response to gratitude and rooted in a passion to serve, servant leadership is a way of being—that while it may result in influence, authority, and might—it doesn’t seek these things.

The difference between the two types of leaders (performance vs. servant) can’t be starker. One is focused on production; the other is focused on people. Performance based leadership is driven, directive, and grows through promotion. Servant leadership is always reluctant, invitational, and grows through attraction.

See Also

Servant leadership really comes down to one main thing: caring to make sure that the people I serve are tended to. A servant leader is one who desires to give good to others for the other’s good. Really when it comes right down to it, we are made to serve. It is in the practice of service that our hearts are exposed and gratified. Nothing fills as satisfyingly and completely as doing good on behalf of another.

But service isn’t only a way of us living out how we are made; it’s also a context for expressing God’s character within us. The bible gives a picture of a God who serves his people’s greater good. And as his image bearers, we are made to do the same. Right from the beginning we get a glimpse of our servant oriented design. The story of the Garden of Eden puts it like this,

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

This phrase “work it and take care of it” is really instructive for us if we understand it from the Jewish mindset. The Hebrew word for “work,” abad, more literally means “to work for another” or “to serve another.” And the rest of the phrase “to take care of it” comes from the Hebrew shamar which means to keep guard and/or observe. So from the biblical perspective, work is meant to resemble that of a steward or janitor—a servant—more than a CEO.

We were made by God to serve God and his creation by guarding, shaping, and nurturing what he made and what he was given us. We are here to serve each other. Living this out we become servant leaders. People are drawn to us and trust us and are willing to follow in the steps where we have been.

In his mercy,
Stephen

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