This upcoming Easter Sunday celebrates the center of the Christian belief, the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, this week also has another holiday of great importance, namely Passover. The feast of Passover is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the deliverance that God provides for the Israelite people. For Christians, the holiday is sometimes observed in remembrance of the “last supper”. According to the gospel accounts of Jesus' days before His death, He celebrated Passover with His disciples the night He was betrayed. At Passover, Jesus did something that was radically countercultural for the time: He washed His disciples feet. In the Jewish culture, washing someone's feet was something that the women (Jewish Encyclopedia) or servants (Jackson) did. Not the host, and certainly not a rabbi! Jesus was setting a standard for the future leaders under Him. The leaders are to be the servants.
(Taken from treehugger.com)
In 1964, businessman Robert K. Greenleaf published an essay titled "The Servant as a Leader," in which he argued that the most effective way to lead was to be a servant (Greenleaf.org). That is, the person who is most interesting in serving and caring for a group should be the one who leads it. Servant leadership is an inverted business model. The traditional view of leadership within a company might resemble the comic strip Dilbert. The employees working for a boss, the boss's job is to manage and direct what they need to be doing, and then taking credit for what they do. The inverted model of leadership suggests that the boss's job is to work for his employees that they can do their job more effectively. The boss still leads and manages, but acts as a steward of the work that goes on, instead of a director. This inverted model that Greenleaf championed was not a brand new idea, but rather the same thing that Jesus taught, the we have to serve first, lead second.
Yet, one has to ask the question: is this a practical leadership model? While in our ivory towers of philosophical musing, have we overlooked reality? Groups need leaders so that there can be consistent direction and purpose. The leader takes responsibility for those under them, and guides them to a purpose. Can a leader really do this and still serve their followers? Not everyone thinks so. According to Nathan Colquhoun, servant leadership doesn't work because the title leader, or the position of leadership, is directly opposed to serving. He argues that Jesus did not teach His disciples to be servant leaders, just servants. He says: "Our problem is that we have way too many people thinking they are leaders and not servants. Servant-leadership doesn’t count. There is no such thing. Just be a servant. Let the leadership lingo slip from your language. If people end up following you, don’t focus on that, just keep serving."
While Colquhoun has a valid point, our focus should not be on title, I disagree with his dichotomy of leadership and servanthood. To ignore the responsibility of leadership in the name of service is just as bad as not serving those whom one is leading. As I shared in a blog post a few weeks ago, leadership is a huge responsibility, and if a leader fails to recognize their position, they are in danger of neglecting their duty as a leader. It is not the title that makes the leader, however, with or without a title, the responsibility of a leader must be recognized. It seems that leadership and servant-ship have a "yin-yang" relationship. Almost like Jesus knew what He was talking about.
To answer the earlier question; does servant leadership work? According to the Navy SEALs, yes. Former Navy SEAL and author Brent Gleeson noted, that Navy SEALs understand servant leadership and can do it effectively because:
...a SEAL is trained to lead and to follow. Team leaders are strong and bold, and have the ability to make hard decisions under the most extreme conditions imaginable. But they also encourage their team members to step up, share the power, and not hesitate to take care of business without waiting for further instruction.If the Navy SEALs, (who are essentially the Rangers of the North of the real world), along with Greenleaf, and Jesus, believe in and practice servant leadership, shouldn't we?
When Jesus washed His disciple's feet, the sheer level of humility and servanthood was far greater and grander than most CEOs or even Navy SEALs could ever imagine. The bible teaches that Jesus was not merely a nice guy, but rather God Himself, who lowered Himself to be a human. At Passover, as they celebrated and remembered the provision of God for the Israelites, Jesus was preparing to be a provision for the whole world. The betrayal, beatings, and then the brutal crucifixion all were acts of sacrificial servant leadership. If the ruler of all reality became a lowly servant for the people who killed Him, what right do modern Christian leaders have to not serve?
Colquhoun, Nathan, "Servant Leadership Doesn't Work", nathancolquhoun.com, Sep. 16, 2010, web. Mar. 27 2013
Gleeson, Brent. "Servant First, Leader Second", inc.com, Feb. 1 2013. web. Mar. 27 2013
Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, "About the Robert K. Greenleaf Center", greenleaf.org, n.d., web. Mar. 26 2013
Jackson, Wayne, "Did Jesus Institute Ceremonial Foot Washing?", ChristianCourier.com, 2013, web. Mar. 26 2013
Jewish Encyclopedia, "Foot Washing", JewishEncyclopedia.com, 1906, web. Mar. 26 2013