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Servant Leadership: Putting Principle into Practice

  • LeAnne Benfield Martin Contributor
  • 2009 9 Nov
Servant Leadership: Putting Principle into Practice

Bottom line. Profits. Stockholders. Success. These factors drive business leaders’ decisions, attitudes, and actions and often determine how they treat the people around them. Most business leaders practice secular leadership models, which are based on using the people who work for you to get what you want. But other leaders are forging a new way by following an old path: the biblical leadership model based on Jesus' example of serving others. What is “servant leadership” and how does it translate to the secular marketplace?

Removing the Veil

“There’s a total misconception about servant leadership,” says small business growth coach and founder of The Jholdas Group, Mike Baer. “There is this aura of mystery and confusion around it. We need to remove the veil and demystify it.”

Here’s what it isn’t: “It’s not weakness, wimpiness, or CEOs who cry. It’s simply the way a person thinks of himself, his mission and the people around him,” says Baer. “It proceeds from the heart and shows through the personality of the individual.”

“It’s less about practice than it is about perspective,” says Baer. “It’s about attitude and thought.”

The secular leadership model is “not necessarily unethical, dishonest, or cruel, but it is about power, authority, and command.” For example, Baer knows one leader in the marketplace who is ethical and fair, but his perspective is ultimately about himself, not about the people who work for him.

“The biblical model is seeing people as my responsibility, placed in my care and equally as valuable as me,” he says.

Laurie Beth Jones, consultant and author of several books including Jesus, CEO and The Path, says, “Jesus is the role model of servant leadership. Secular leadership is driven purely by profit. People are seen as a means. To Jesus, the development of people was the ultimate meaning. He was very economically sound and sensitive. He was very practical in his approach to money.”

Jesus focused on the kingdom beyond this one and the development of human souls. “He led people by serving them. He is a model of success for anyone.”

In her book, The Four Elements of Success, Jones says that true servant leaders:

1. Excite people about the larger vision.

2. Ground people about the cost.

3. Transform the people they work with, primarily through example, and...

4. Release people to live their highest gift.

A friend of Jones’ put this last principle into practice in a surprising way. His business in start-up mode, he was considering four people for the position of Marketing Director, so he decided to take them all on a retreat. While there, he had them write their vision statement for five years from then. One woman said she wanted to be running a day care center, so she obviously wasn’t right for the position of Marketing Director.

A few days later, Jones’ friend saw a classified ad for a day care center for rent. He gave the ad to this woman and within 30 days, she was doing her vision. Grateful, she offered free day care for the Marketing Director’s children. Jones’ friend knew that choosing someone who had a different vision would cost him in the long run, but he also saw the larger purpose of this woman’s life, and he encouraged her to pursue it.

Reaching the Goal

How does a person become a servant leader? It starts with examining your perspective and attitudes, according to Baer. “Ask yourself honestly: ‘How do I define leadership? Where are the mental blocks holding me up? Do I believe servant leadership means [being] weak? Do I believe it’s possible to be strong, forceful, confrontational, and still obey Christ?”

Baer also suggests examining how you view yourself compared with how you view others. He refers to John 13, where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. “How could the Son of God wash feet? He had a healthy view of Himself and others.” Jesus knew who He was, where He came from and where He was going. In the freedom of that knowledge, he provided a profound example of servant leadership.

There are many ways to show servant leadership in the marketplace. Here are some ideas that Tom Lutz, founder of Vision Planners, which assists visionary Christian leaders to create solutions to advance visions across America, has found effective:

  • Know the name of every person in the organization and talk to them frequently, even those who do what you might consider an insignificant task such as cleaning. “How can I help [the cleaning lady] be the best? By thanking her. If you take that role out, what happens? Understand how it fits.”
  • Understand what people can and can’t do. Don’t give them a job they will fail at.
  • Listen to just complaints. Hold town hall meetings.
  • Teach people the significance of the role they play, that they are performing a function valuable to the organization.

Jones, in her Four Elements of Success, includes specific action steps such as:

  • Know your own mission and clearly articulate the vision so people are excited.
  • Coach people, rather than being the boss. Free them by lifting obstacles out of their way.

When we begin to understand and practice servant leadership, we may be surprised how many more ideas will come our way. As we go, we can ask Jesus, who was the true embodiment of the concept, to inspire and guide us to make a difference in the marketplace and, ultimately, in people’s lives. After all, that’s what Jesus was all about.

Other helpful resources include:

1. Marketplace Leaders, founded by Os Hillman, helps men and women fulfill God's call on their lives by understanding the role faith plays in their workplace calling.

2. Good to Great by Jim Collins (HarperBusiness). One of the best leadership books ever written, according to Mike Baer. Collins’ concept of Level 5 Leadership describes servant leadership in detail.

Excerpt from an article that first appeared in The Lookout, May 15, 2005. © LeAnne Benfield Martin. Used with permission from the author.

Freelance writer LeAnne Benfield Martin has been published in many Christian magazines. She enjoys writing and speaking about many topics, especially the arts and the beauty around us. Check out her blog on Christians in the Arts at